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Is Mac and Cheese Healthy? Nutrition, Calories
Nutrition

Is Mac and Cheese Healthy? Nutrition, Calories

HR_author_photo_Edibel
Written by Edibel Quintero, RD | Medically reviewed by Medically reviewed by Rosmy Barrios, MD check
Published on August 23, 2022
260 Views
6 min

Mac and cheese is a favorite comfort meal enjoyed by many worldwide. But should it be part of a healthy diet? Let’s find out!

is mac and cheese healthy

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Mac and cheese recipes are high in fat, calories, and sodium. Therefore, macaroni and cheese should not be consumed every day. However, the dish also has nutrients such as fiber, protein, vitamins, and minerals, so swapping unhealthy ingredients for healthier alternatives can make it more nutritious.

Are you looking to eat healthily but also want to enjoy mac and cheese? What if you could do both? Keep reading to learn how!

How Is Mac and Cheese Made?

Mac and cheese is often purchased in a box containing uncooked macaroni noodles and a packet of cheese powder. Then you cook the pasta in boiling water and add cheese powder. Mix and voilà!

Making mac and cheese from scratch, on the other hand, is another story! Cooked macaroni noodles are topped with a creamy cheese sauce, which is prepared by making a roux. A roux is a thickened sauce made from flour and liquid cooked and repeatedly stirred over high heat.

However, once finished on the stove, many decide to transfer the mac and cheese to an oven-safe dish, sprinkle some bread crumbs on top, and bake in the oven for approximately 30 minutes. Baking mac and cheese creates a slightly crunchy texture.

Is Mac and Cheese Healthy?

Commercial-made mac and cheese isn’t healthy. In fact, it’s often full of saturated fat from cheese, milk, and butter. Also, these ingredients can contribute to the high sodium or salt content of the dish.

Additionally, mac and cheese is often high in calories and can contribute to obesity if consumed too much, also increasing the risk of chronic health issues like heart disease, high blood pressure, and type 2 diabetes.

 

However, while often high in saturated fat and sodium, mac and cheese can also contain healthy nutrients.

The enriched pasta provides fiber, B vitamins, and iron. The sauce for mac and cheese, which often contains milk, offers calcium, vitamin D, and protein.

Of course, no matter how high in calories and fat, any food or dish can be enjoyed in moderation! But there are also ways to increase the nutrition of mac and cheese.

Swapping out the white pasta for whole-wheat pasta in the recipe is a terrific way to boost the fiber content. According to the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, women should consume at least 25 grams of fiber daily, and men should consume 38 grams.

Is Homemade Mac and Cheese Healthy?

Yes, it is! Homemade mac and cheese not only tastes richer and creamier, but it is healthier for you as well.

While it is a quick and easy dinner, packaged mac and cheese frequently has higher salt content. The high salt content is most likely due to salt being a preservative that maintains the quality of shelf-stable goods. When you create your own mac and cheese, you can decide how much salt is used and tailor it to your preferences and health requirements.

When cooking mac and cheese at home, you can also choose a lower fat milk choice in the cheese sauce, such as 1% milk or even skim milk. Lowering saturated fat consumption would also reduce the risk of chronic diseases such as obesity and high blood cholesterol.

Similarly, choosing a healthy replacement for regular butter, such as coconut oil, ghee, or even olive oil, can help decrease saturated fat and sodium.

What Ingredients Do Mac and Cheese Contain?

Besides the macaroni pasta, the cheese sauce often includes cheese (of course!), butter, flour, and milk. Some replace the milk with cream to create a thicker sauce. Popular cheese choices are sharp cheddar cheese and white cheddar cheese. Some even use cream cheese in their cheesy sauce!

Let’s talk about some popular additions to mac and cheese and how they can impact the dish’s nutrition.

Fresh veggies are a common ingredient that adds color and vitality to mac and cheese while also increasing fiber, vitamins, and minerals. The fiber in the vegetables aids digestion and bulks out the meal, making you feel full. For a delightful twist, toss some broccoli florets or other green veggies into your spaghetti.

Herbs such as parsley and spices such as garlic powder or onion powder are flavorful add-ins. Of course, each herb and spice has its array of health benefits, but regardless, herbs and spices are a low (if not zero) calorie and healthful way to add flavor to mac and cheese.

Proteins are often added, such as chicken breast, ground beef, pulled pork, or bacon. Opt for chicken breast or lean ground turkey to avoid high amounts of cholesterol and saturated fat.

Substituting some of the cheese with low-fat or reduced-fat cheese will decrease some saturated fat and sodium. However, a lesser-known substitute is nutritional yeast.

Nutritional yeast will boost your vitamins and minerals, including vitamin B12, and significantly decrease fat and sodium in the mac and cheese. If you are not familiar with nutritional yeast, it tastes very similar to Parmesan cheese but is a protein-packed vegan alternative. Perfect for dishes such as mac and cheese, so give it a try!

Nutrition Facts

From calories, protein, and fat down to micronutrients, such as vitamins and minerals, let’s dive into the nutritional profile of macaroni and cheese.

Nutrition Table (per 100g)

Calories/NutrientAmount
Calories (kcal)321kcal
Net Carbs (g)43.6g
Fiber (g)2.6g
Sugar (g)5.13g
Fats (Total)10.3g
Protein (g)11.5g
Cholesterol (mg)32mg
Source: https://fdc.nal.usda.gov/fdc-app.html#/food-details/1850080/nutrients 

High in vitamins and minerals

According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, macaroni and cheese contains vitamin A, iron, and calcium. Vitamin A is essential for supporting eye health and vision. Also, iron is a mineral that helps transport oxygen around the body through red blood cells. Lastly, calcium helps build strong bones and teeth.

High in protein

Mac and cheese has 11.5g of protein per 100g serving. The cheese, milk, and even the macaroni help to add to the high protein content of mac and cheese. To make a healthier mac and cheese, add a lean beef or poultry source or nutritional yeast.

High in fats and calories

Cheese, butter, milk, and pasta contribute to macaroni and cheese’s high fat and calorie profile. Saturated fat and calories in excess can contribute to many chronic health conditions. Therefore, mac and cheese should be consumed in moderation and in small amounts.

Low in cholesterol

Cholesterol is a compound found in animal products, including milk, butter, and cheese. The build-up of cholesterol in the blood can increase the risk of artery-clogging, causing a heart attack or a stroke. Mac and cheese has a medium amount of cholesterol due to its ingredients. Of course, if animal-based products are added, cholesterol amounts can be changed.

High in carbohydrates

Since macaroni and cheese is a pasta-based dish, it is high in carbohydrates. Carbohydrates are the body’s primary source of energy. However, when consumed in excess, carbohydrates can turn into fat in the body and contribute to the development of chronic diseases.

FAQs

Is macaroni and cheese high in fiber?

Mac and cheese made from white enriched pasta have moderate fiber. Use whole-wheat pasta noodles in your mac and cheese to increase fiber content. Additionally, adding nutritional yeast will increase dietary fiber as well!

How many calories are in baked mac and cheese?

Baked mac and cheese has approximately 200–300 calories per 8-ounce serving. However, calories vary based on the specific recipe and ingredients.

Is Annie’s mac and cheese healthy?

Annie’s mac and cheese is a microwavable macaroni and cheese product touted as healthy since it contains organic pasta and real white cheddar cheese. However, Annie’s mac and cheese remains high in sodium and calories.

What is the serving size of mac and cheese?

The typical serving size of mac and cheese is one cup or 8 ounces.

Conclusion

Mac and cheese can be a healthy food when certain substitutes are made. Store-bought macaroni and cheese is exceptionally high in sodium, and therefore, homemade mac and cheese is the healthier option.

Replace the white pasta with wheat pasta, the milk with 1% or skim milk, and some of the cheese with nutritional yeast or low-fat cheeses to boost nutrition. Stick to the suggested serving amount of one cup of mac and cheese. Finally, savor each bite for a conscious and pleasant lunch.

HR_author_photo_Edibel
Written by
Edibel Quintero is a medical doctor who graduated in 2013 from the University of Zulia and has been working in her profession since then. She specializes in obesity and nutrition, physical rehabilitation, sports massage and post-operative rehabilitation. Edibel’s goal is to help people live healthier lives by educating them about food, exercise, mental wellness and other lifestyle choices that can improve their quality of life.
Medically reviewed by Rosmy Barrios, MD
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