If you're wondering if bread or pasta is healthier for you, we rounded up information from a number of registered dietitians to help us understand the world of carbohydrates better. There's a better way to approach bread vs. noodles, including looking at carbohydrates as part of a bigger nutritional picture.
Carbohydrates: An Essential Part of a Balanced Diet
Despite its bad rap, carbohydrates are important to a balanced diet. According to the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, compiled by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and the U.S. Department of Agriculture, 45 to 65 percent of your total daily calories should include carbohydrates (a primary source of where we get our energy).
Carbs, along with other macronutrients protein and fat, keep our bodies functioning optimally. They can also help regulate mood, contribute to a healthy heart and better brain function. However, contrary to popular consciousness, carbs (which include fiber, sugar, and starch) aren't just a matter of bread vs. noodles. "People love to say things like ‘I am on a low-carb diet’ or ‘I'm not eating carbs right now.’ Typically, they're referring to pasta and bread, but what many don't know is that dairy, fruit, and vegetables have naturally occurring carbohydrates,” says registered dietitian Courtney Ferreira in an interview with NBC Better. “If you are eating broccoli, you are eating carbs."
Meet the Expert
Courtney Ferreira is a registered dietitian nutritionist in the Baltimore, Maryland area. She is the owner of Real Food Court nutrition consulting and serves as the Wellness Director at a physical therapy clinic.
Good Carbs vs. Bad Carbs
That said, all carbs aren't bad for you, and instead of categorizing carbohydrates into good vs. bad, dietitians recommend considering that there are some foods that you can eat with abandon—whole food carb-sources like green veggies and fruit, which are packed with nutrients and fiber (which helps you feel full). On the other hand, foods like refined or packaged bread, cookies, and chips require more balance and mindfulness around portion size.
According to Ferreira, "Instead of saying, ‘I can't eat that,’ [ask] what is a source of carbs that will provide me with more nutrition?” That's why it's important to approach your diet from a holistic perspective. "The presence of fiber, protein, and fats is important because it slows digestion, prevents a spike in our blood sugar levels, and helps us to feel full and satisfied for longer (i.e. curbs cravings)," says Rebecca Lewis, registered dietitian at HelloFresh, for NBC Better.
Bread or Pasta?
According to Joel Feren, a practicing dietitian and spokesperson for the Dietitian's Association of Australia, bread is slightly better for you than pasta, with caveats. "One cup of cooked pasta is a [serving], and its [calorie] content is a little bit higher than a [serving] of bread, which tends to be two slices," he tells the Australian health publication Body+Soul. "In terms of carbohydrate content, we have 42g of carbohydrate in the cup of pasta and about 30g in a [serving] of bread."
However, Feren says to consider the fact that pasta is a low glycemic index (GI) source, which means it's "broken down over a longer period of time, so it's actually going to sustain us," or help us feel fuller longer. Instead, the challenge with pasta tends to be in the portion sizes we're consuming it in. "People tend to overeat pasta," Feren continues. "Patients I meet in private will have a bowl of pasta and that's all they'll eat as a meal. I'll ask, where's the protein coming from? It's also about getting enough veggies."
Feren recommends sticking to a one-cup serving of pasta and supplementing that meal with a side salad and a source of protein. What's more, you can opt for whole-wheat pasta, which has a bit more fiber than white (and the same goes for bread.) It's worth noting, however, that ingredients like sugar, preservatives, and additives will alter food's nutritional value, so whether you opt for pasta or bread, the more simple the ingredient list, the better.
2015–2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans Eighth Edition. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. December 2015.
Firth J, Gangwisch JE, Borisini A, Wootton RE, Mayer EA. Food and Mood: How Do Diet and Nutrition Affect Mental Wellbeing? BMJ. 2020;369:m2382. doi:10.1136/bmj.m2382
Slavin J, Carlson J. Carbohydrates. Adv Nutr. 2014;5(6):760-761. doi:10.3945/an.114.006163