Leslie Beck on the benefits of pasta and what brands and types we should buy and the ones to stay away from.

When you think about losing weight or getting healthier, pasta generally isn't part of the equation. But a quick walk down the pasta aisle might change your mind. You can buy pasta made from whole-wheat, brown rice, spelt, rye or flaxseed. Some brands even have omega-3 fats and extra protein.

Our nutrition expert, Leslie Beck, is here to guide us through the pasta aisle.

How healthy is pasta? What about the carbs and weight gain?

By itself, pasta is a nutritious food. It contains almost no fat, cholesterol and sodium and is an excellent source of low glycemic index carbohydrates. Foods with a low GI are broken down slowly in the body and release their carbohydrate (glucose) gradually into the bloodstream. As a result, they can help you feel full longer after eating.

Eating pasta also helps boost your intake of folic acid, a B vitamin that's been added to enriched pasta, white flour and cornmeal since 1998. An adequate intake of folic acid reduces a woman's risk of having a child born with brain or spinal cord defects.

But depending on what type of pasta you buy, how much you eat, and what you top it off with, the nutritional picture can change dramatically.

So what should you look for when buying pasta?

Choose whole grain pasta. Compared to people who eat mainly refined (white) grains, whole grain eaters have a lower risk of heart disease, stroke, diabetes, obesity and certain cancers. Today, grocery stores carry whole wheat pasta in all shapes and sizes - along with pasta made from other whole grains such as brown rice and flax.

Eden Foods offers 100% whole grain spelt, rye and kamut pastas. Catelli's Healthy Harvest Multigrain pasta is made with five whole grain flours including whole wheat semolina, whole rye, whole buckwheat, whole barley and brown rice.

Choosing 100% whole grain pasta over white means you'll consume more minerals, phytochemicals and fibre. Per serving, whole grain pasta delivers roughly twice as much fibre as white.

Catelli's Smart Pasta contains inulin, a white powder extracted from chicory root. Inulin is touted to stimulate the growth of beneficial bacteria in the gut and add fibre to foods. But isolated fibres like inulin may not have the same benefits of intact fibres in whole grains.

What about omega-3 enriched pasta?

Dried pasta made with flaxseed serves up alpha linolenic acid (ALA), an omega-3 fatty acid that may help prevent heart attacks. An 85 gram serving (dry) of Catelli Flax Omega-3 pasta provides 0.8 grams of ALA - 75% of the daily recommended intake for women and half a day's worth for men.

But you don't need to rely on pasta to get your ALA. In addition to natural sources like flax oil, walnuts and soybeans, ALA is added to some brands of soy beverage, margarine, eggs and yogurt.

What is the right portion size for pasta?

The key to weight control is portion size. One food guide serving - one-half cup (125 ml) - of cooked pasta has 104 calories, half a gram of fat and a mere 1 milligram of sodium. If you're making a meal out of pasta, keep your portion size to 1.5 to 2 cups (375 to 500 ml) of cooked pasta. If you're trying to lose weight, stick to one cup (250 ml).

In general, for small to medium shaped (macaroni, penne, fusili) and long shaped pasta (spaghetti, linguini, fettuccine) 56 gram dry weight (about � cup) yields one cup (250 ml) cooked pasta. A serving size of 85 grams dry (about � cup) will yield roughly 1.5 cups (375 ml) of cooked pasta.

What's the difference between dried pasta and fresh pasta?

Fresh pasta contains eggs and additional water so it takes less time to cook than dried pasta. But fresh pasta can add more cholesterol-raising saturated fat and sodium to your meal if it's stuffed with cheese and meat. For instance, one-cup serving of President's Choice Lombardia Gorgonzola and Walnut ravioli delivers 6 grams of saturated fat - nearly one-third of a day's worth - and 510 milligrams of sodium. Read labels to compare brands.

If you don't have time to make pasta sauce, what should you look for on labels?

Ideally, choose a tomato sauce for a good source of vitamins A and C. Low in fat and calories, tomato sauce is also an excellent source of lycopene, an antioxidant linked with protection from prostate cancer. But keep in mind that add-ins like cheese, beef and cream add calories and saturated fat. Look for a product with no more than 65 calories, 1 gram saturated fat, and 400 milligrams of sodium per one-half cup (125 ml) serving.