But carbohydrates, like pasta and rice, are important sources of nutrition regardless of whether they’re whole grains, says Natalie Rizzo, M.S., R.D. And although pasta has been the OG carbohydrate used for fueling endurance activities, like long runs, is it really superior to its smaller, longer-cooking friend, rice?
Let’s break them down.
Pasta Nutrition and Benefits
Whether you prefer spaghetti, penne, linguini, angel hair—we could go on—pasta is a staple for endurance athletes thanks to its carbohydrate content.
A one-cup serving of pasta contains roughly 220 calories and 43 grams of carbohydrates. The biggest difference between white pasta and whole-wheat pasta is its fiber content, Rizzo says, the latter being a little easier on the stomach during exercise. But both varieties contain roughly the same amount of protein: 8 grams per serving.
Pasta is technically more processed than rice, which is a whole food, Rizzo says. When we think of processed foods, however, we think of packaged snacks and drinks that have been associated with negative health outcomes like type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and obesity, according to a 2020 review published in Nutrients.
“But the process that pasta goes through isn’t any different from bread, and pasta may actually be healthier,” Rizzo says. “Bread has added sugars and fillers. Pasta is just wheat and water, and it’s fortified with B vitamins.” (Many breads are also fortified with B vitamins.)
Pasta might be more convenient than rice to cook, if you’re not using an instant rice variety. And when you’re a busy athlete in training, time is money.
In recent years, food manufacturers have made pasta from a host of plants other than wheat, including lentils, chickpeas, and beans. These tend to contain higher levels of certain nutrients, including protein and fiber, but fewer amounts of carbohydrates.
Rice Nutrition and Benefits
For reasons unknown to Rizzo, people tend to reach for rice dishes when they want a “healthier” carbohydrate than pasta. She says she’s not sure where the stigma that rice is healthier came from.
“Rice is a staple in other cuisines that tend to be healthier,” she says, noting veggie-heavy rice dishes in certain Asian meals and the prevalence of rice and beans in dishes from Latin American countries.
A cup of rice contains about 250 calories and 53 grams of carbohydrates, putting it ahead of its pasta rival in calories and carbs.
Compared to pasta, rice—brown and white—contains far less protein (roughly 2 grams per serving compared to pasta’s 8 grams) and fiber (1 gram for brown rice, .5 gram for white compared to 2.5 grams in white pasta, 7 grams in whole-wheat).
Rice contains vitamins and minerals that pasta does not, including folic acid, B vitamins (unless the pasta is fortified), iron, and zinc, but Rizzo says the amounts are very small. For those following a gluten-free diet, rice is a good option.
The Bottom Line
If you’re looking for a slight boost of protein during, say, a recovery period, pasta offers that. Or if you have a sensitive stomach, go with white rice before a workout, because it contains the lowest amount of fiber of your pasta and rice options.
But when it comes to looking at “which single food is healthier,” Rizzo says it really depends on what you’ve paired that food with. Rice and pasta supply quality carbohydrates, but if you pair pasta with a cream-based sauce or beans with rice, that might upset your stomach.
Like with all things sport and nutrition, it’s smart to make sure certain foods sit well with your GI tract. Before your next long workout, try a simple pesto sauce on pasta or a fried egg with rice. To refuel, pair pasta with turkey meatballs (high in protein!) and tomato sauce (high in antioxidants!) or grilled salmon atop a bed of rice and a drizzle of olive oil.