Some nights you just really need a comforting, hearty bowl of pasta. We’re talking about that good sauce, fresh basil, and a hefty grating of Parmesan. But when you’re cutting back on carbs or watching your weight, those heavenly noodles can really add up.
A two-ounce serving of regular pasta is about 200 calories, with 42 grams of carbohydrates, seven grams of protein, and just two grams of fiber, says Ashlee Wright, R.D. Even whole-wheat pasta still comes in at around 180 calories, with 39 grams of carbohydrates, and (a more impressive) eight grams of protein and seven grams of fiber.
Luckily, there are tons of healthier pasta alternatives to choose from to satisfy your pasta cravings while saving you a boatload of calories—and we’re not just talking about zoodles. These dietitian-approved noodles are versatile, nutritious, and less calorie-dense than your average spaghetti, so you can treat yourself without a shred of guilt.
1. Shirataki Noodles
These Japanese, noodles, which translate to ‘white waterfall’, are pretty much calorie-less, so it’s no wonder they’re such a popular pasta swap. They’re made with an Asian Yam (a root) called konjac, or konnyaku, and water, explains Lauren Harris-Pincus, M.S., R.D.N., author of The Protein-Packed Breakfast Club.
These noodles are thin, translucent, and gelatinous, and have a glossy, white appearance. A serving of regular shirataki noodles has zero calories and under a gram of carbs, Harris-Pincus says. (You can also find tofu shirataki noodles, made of konnyaku and tofu, which have about 10 calories, three grams of carbs, and two grams of fiber per serving.)
Shirataki noodles come in several varieties, so you can have fettuccine one night and spaghetti another. The best part? No prep necessary! Shirataki is pre-cooked, so you just have to drain the water out of the package, rinse, microwave briefly, and pat the noodles dry.
Shirataki noodles make the perfect healthier Pad Thai. Just toss them with peanut sauce, shrimp, and a bunch of vegetables (like broccoli, bok choy, mushrooms, and asparagus), suggests Kelly R. Jones M.S., R.D., C.S.S.D., L.D.N.
2. Edamame Noodles
Made from green soybeans, a serving of edamame noodles is about 210 calories. But for those calories you get 22 grams of carbs, 25 grams of protein, and 11 grams of fiber, says Jones. Yep, that’s the same amount of protein as a serving of chicken breast. And all that fiber is sure to keep you feeling full!
“Edamame noodles are a fabulous source of plant-based protein,” says Harris-Pincus. Because the noodles contain so much protein, you don’t even need to add extra to the meal. What’s more, they also supply a quarter of your daily potassium needs and a third of your daily iron needs.
You’ll prepare edamame noodles just like you would regular pasta. Jones recommends tossing them with a no-sugar added tomato sauce and a serving of vegetables for a quick weeknight meal. (Harris-Pincus likes hers with a garlicky pesto sauce.)
Related: 7 Vegetarian Protein Sources
3. Chickpea Pasta
Chickpeas can do so much more than hummus. A serving of chickpea pasta is about 190 calories, with 32 grams of carbs, 14 grams of protein, and eight grams of fiber, says Jones. They’re also a good source of iron.
The flavor and texture of chickpea pasta is similar to whole-wheat pasta. It’s available in a bunch of pasta shapes and cooks up just like normal pasta. The ingredient list is pretty slim, too, typically just chickpea flour, tapioca, pea protein, and xanthan gum (for binding purposes), says Wright. Jones likes to use shell or elbow-shaped chickpea pasta for homemade macaroni and cheese or summer pasta salads.
4. Black Bean Pasta
Black bean pasta is made from just black bean flour, and offers 14 grams of protein, a whopping 15 grams of fiber, and 35 grams of carbs per 200-calorie serving, says Wright. Like edamame noodles, black bean pasta is higher in calories—but those calories are more balanced with protein and fiber than plain old pasta. Plus, it provides about a quarter of your daily iron needs, says Wright.
Black bean pasta is perfect for a quick weeknight Mexican dish. “While the pasta is cooking, sauté garlic, onions, some frozen corn, and spinach in a sauce pan,” suggests Jones. Toss your veggies into the pasta and top with salsa and avocado.
5. Buckwheat Pasta
You’ll often hear buckwheat noodles referred to as Japanese soba noodles, says Jones. And despite its name, buckwheat doesn’t actually contain wheat—it’s a seed! (Many mainstream soba noodle brands do contain traces of wheat flour, though, so check your labels. Look for a brand that’s made from just buckwheat flour and water, suggests Jones.)
At 200 calories, with 43 grams of carbs, six grams of protein, and three grams of protein per serving, soba noodles are the closest to regular pasta calorie-wise, says Jones. But because buckwheat is naturally high in phosphorus (important for our bones) and zinc (important for our immune and nervous systems), it has a bit of a nutritional edge over the other stuff, says Jones.
Soba noodles work well in Asian-inspired dishes like stir-fries. “Add your favorite stir-fry sauce, vegetables like broccoli and peppers, and a protein like shrimp, chicken, or tofu,” says Jones.