Pasta comes in multiple varieties so as a Dietitian I’m often asked whether pasta is fast digesting or slow digesting so that clients know when to eat it and what to pair it with.
Pasta can be fast or slow digesting, depending on the type. Pasta can be made from whole wheat, refined wheat, rice flour, eggs, or legumes, meaning the glycemic index (the rate of digestion) ranges from low to high. In general, refined wheat and rice flour digest the fastest, and legume pasta digests the slowest.
Knowing when to eat pasta, what type of pasta to eat, and whether or not to pair it is important to optimize your health and performance goals, so I’ll break it down for you.
- The main nutrients to look at when determining how quickly pasta will digest are fiber and protein because higher quantities of these nutrients will slow digestion.
- White and rice pasta may be better before or after exercise, whereas legume or whole-grain pasta may be better when you want to stay full for longer periods.
- Pasta (regardless of the type) digests slower if you pair it with additional sources of protein, fat, and fiber.
Understanding the Glycemic Index
The glycemic index (GI) is a scale from 1 to 100 that ranks how quickly carbohydrate-containing foods and drinks raise blood sugar levels. Foods that raise blood sugar levels more quickly are foods that digest at a faster rate.
Items are classified with either a low (1-55), medium (56-69), or high (70-100) GI rating. Higher scores mean a faster rise in blood sugars, whereas lower scores represent a slower and more progressive rise in blood sugars.
- High-GI foods digest and absorb more quickly because they are made up of simple sugars and/or refined carbs, which are easier for the body to break down.
- Conversely, low-GI foods break down more slowly because they contain more starch and fiber, which take longer for the body to break down and digest.
Although the glycemic index is a great metric for how quickly certain foods digest, there are multiple factors (i.e. food pairings, portion size, etc) that influence how quickly foods will digest that you should be aware of.
- Related article: What Are Fast Digesting Foods? 10 Examples & When to Eat
How Long Does It Take Pasta To Digest?
Pasta can take 30 minutes to 3-4 hours to digest fully, depending on the type of pasta consumed (white, whole grain, rice, lentil, chickpea, etc.) and whether it’s combined with other foods containing protein and/or fat.
White pasta breaks down and absorbs the fastest because it contains refined starchy carbs, little to no fiber, and little protein. If you eat it on its own, it will digest within 30-60 minutes.
Conversely, whole grain pasta and lentil pasta contain more fiber and protein which takes longer for the body to break down, leading to 2-3 hours of digestion time when eaten by itself.
If you eat pasta with other foods containing protein and fat, then the meal will digest slower because fat and protein take longer to break down.
Is Pasta A Complex or Simple Carb?
Most of the pasta you see on supermarket shelves is typically made from wheat or rice flour, which contains complex carbs in the form of starch. However, despite being made from complex carbs, they may be processed in a way that decreases their overall nutritional value.
The flour used in typical store-bought pasta has been processed to remove the bran and germ (fiber), making it faster to digest. Despite the processing, it is still a complex carb, since it’s mostly made up of starch.
Complex carbs are made up of long chains of sugar molecules that take longer to break down (i.e. starch). Foods with lots of complex carbs and fiber, provide a sustained release of energy (since fiber slows down digestion).
Examples of these foods include rice, potatoes, and bread.
On the other hand, simple carbs are made up of shorter chains of sugar molecules that are quick to break down (i.e. glucose, sucrose, fructose). Foods containing mostly simple carbs provide fast-acting energy.
Examples include ripe bananas, sweets, soda, and fruit juice.
The following table shows how pasta compares to other types of carbs using their GI scores provided by the International Tables of glycemic index values.
*Low GI foods are 1-55, medium GI foods are 56-69, and high GI foods are 70+.
|White spaghetti pasta (boiled for 10 min)||52-59|
|White spaghetti pasta (boiled for 20 min)||58-64|
|Wholemeal spaghetti pasta (boiled for 10-12 min)||42-59|
|Basmati white rice||67|
|Baked sweet potato||91|
|Instant mashed potatoes||81|
|Oat bran bread||45|
|Instant flavored oats||83|
|Apple (with skin on)||40|
To put this in context, pasta is slower digesting than a baked sweet potato, instant oats, and soda, but faster digesting than an apple and barley.
“To understand a food’s complete effect on blood sugar, you need to know both how quickly it makes glucose enter the bloodstream and how much glucose per serving it can deliver.– Harvard health publishing – Harvard medical school
It is important to note that GI simply refers to the effect on your blood sugar and the speed at which a certain food will provide energy, rather than the total amount of energy that you’ll get from a particular food.
Types of Pasta: Ranking From Fastest To Slowest Digesting
The research around the GI of pasta is quite variable, as there are so many different types and brands, but the International tables of glycemic index values show that the GI of pasta varies from low to high (or 20-92).
This means the digestion rate will vary as well, making it difficult to accurately rank pasta in the GI chart.
So, the pasta below will be ranked according to its formulation (protein and fiber content), with the following table showing the GI range of different varieties.
*Low GI foods are 1-55, medium GI foods are 56-69, and high GI foods are 70+.
|Types of pasta||Glycaemic Index|
|Refined wheat pasta (white)||48-64|
|Whole wheat pasta (wholegrain)||42-59|
|(Refined) wheat and egg pasta (e.g. lasagne, tagliatelle)||46-55|
|Legume pasta (red lentil, chickpea, soya, and pea flour)||20-29|
Based on these big differences in GI, pasta made with legume flour has the lowest GI, whereas rice pasta has the highest GI.
This means that rice pasta digests faster since it breaks down quicker, and legume pasta digests slower since it breaks down slower (since it is high in fiber and protein).
Benefits of Eating A Slow-to-Fast Digesting Carb Like Pasta
The benefits of eating pasta are mainly associated with choosing slower-digesting varieties:
1. It Is Filling
If you opt for wholegrain or legume pasta, you will likely feel fuller for longer since it is higher in protein and fiber than other types of pasta.
To keep hunger at bay for longer, you could also pair it with a protein and/or fat source, like meat sauce (bolognese).
Additionally, if your goal is to lose weight or you have problems with managing blood glucose (such as people with diabetes), these higher fiber pasta varieties are better than refined pasta varieties (e.g. white or rice pasta), which will not be as filling.
2. Long Lasting Energy
Choosing lower GI pasta options (like legume and whole grain pasta) offers a steady rise in blood sugars, providing you with more stable and sustainable energy to keep you energized for longer periods.
Having more of these types of foods will help to balance blood sugar levels, preventing spikes and crashes in energy levels.
Drawbacks of Eating A Slow-to-Fast Digesting Carb Like Pasta
Although there are benefits to eating pasta, there are also a few drawbacks to consider:
1. Unsteady Blood Sugars
If you have a larger portion of refined pasta (i.e. 250g of uncooked white pasta), it will cause a large spike in blood sugar since this quantity of pasta will release lots of energy (glucose) in one sitting.
Although this isn’t necessarily a problem if it happens every once in a while, it can become a problem over time if you’re consistently eating larger than ideal amounts of refined carbs along with foods high in sugars (i.e. cake, cookies, candy).
Consuming these types of foods in excess can increase the risk of developing insulin resistance (when your body struggles to pull sugar from the blood to use as energy), leading to diabetes or other health issues.
2. Will Not Provide Instant Energy
Pasta will not provide you with immediate energy because of its starch content, even if you’re choosing rice or white pasta which have the highest GI scores. Therefore, it won’t be the best choice when you are low on energy right before or during exercise.
Instead, you would be better off with a simple sugar like dextrose, fruit juice, or a ripe banana to give you a boost in energy to perform optimally.
When Should You Eat Pasta?
There are some situations when it may be advantageous to eat pasta. Here are the two ideal scenarios.
Before & After Exercise
Pasta is ideal 2-3 hours before exercise because it will provide a source of energy that can support exercise performance. Pairing it with protein with little to no fat would also help prevent muscle breakdown.
You could also have pasta immediately after exercise because it will digest fast enough to replenish energy stores more quickly. The pasta should once again be paired with protein to promote muscle repair following exercise.
- Related: Is Pasta Good For Bodybuilding?
Whether it’s for lunch or dinner, pasta combined with other foods (such as meat, eggs, or fish, and vegetables) is a balanced meal that will keep you satisfied.
Having a balanced meal with carbs (pasta), protein + fat (meat, fish, or eggs), and vegetables will keep you full for longer and provide you with all the nutrients your body needs to function optimally.
I recommend a whole grain pasta with meat sauce (bolognese) paired with a side salad for more volume and nutrients.
How To Make Pasta Digest Faster or Slower
If you’re going long periods without eating or you’re dieting then you’ll want to eat pasta that digests at a slower rate.
If you’re eating pasta before or after exercise to support your performance, then you’ll need pasta that digests more quickly.
You can change the rate of digestion in the following ways:
1. Choose It According to Its Formulation
If you choose legume or whole grain pasta, it can help slow digestion as the fiber and protein content will be higher.
If you choose white refined pasta or rice-based pasta, it can speed up the rate of digestion because the fiber and protein content will be lower.
2. Eat It With Protein, and/or Fat Sources
Eating any type of pasta with protein and fat sources, such as a meat/fish sauce, and a side salad with avocado and other vegetables, can slow down its digestion and help to keep blood sugars steady.
This slows down digestion because protein and fat are slower to digest and because it will increase the total volume of the meal, which means there is more food for your stomach to digest.
3. Eat It Alone
If you want a faster rise in blood sugar and faster-acting energy then you’ll need the pasta to digest faster, which is best accomplished when the pasta is eaten on its own. You could still add some herbs/spices to give it some flavor without affecting the rate of digestion.
Digestion Rate of Other Carbs
Bertoia ML, Mukamal KJ, Cahill LE, Hou T, Ludwig DS, Mozaffarian D, et al. (2016) Correction: Changes in Intake of Fruits and Vegetables and Weight Change in United States Men and Women Followed for Up to 24 Years: Analysis from Three Prospective Cohort Studies. PLoS Med 13(1): e1001956. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pmed.1001956
About The Author
Giulia Rossetto is a qualified Dietitian and Nutritionist. She holds a Masters in Human Nutrition (University of Sheffield, UK) and more recently graduated as a Dietitian (University of Malta). Giulia aims to translate evidence-based science to the public through teaching and writing content. She has worked 4+ years in clinical settings and has also published articles in academic journals. She is into running, swimming and weight lifting, and enjoys spending time in the mountains (she has a soft spot for hiking and skiing in the Italian Dolomites).
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