Is Pesto Healthy? Here's What a Dietitian Says
I have changed my mind on pesto in the past decade. I used to worry that because it was so delicious, it couldn't possibly be good for me. I also knew it was made with high-calorie ingredients like olive oil and nuts, so too much must be bad...right? Well, I'm happy to say I'm a pesto convert and huge pesto lover now. But before you dive into a bowl of pesto pasta (like this Walnut Pesto Pasta Salad, pictured above) let me break down a bit more about pesto nutrition and what's in pesto, how to make it healthier at home and if you can enjoy it if you want to lose weight (spoiler, yes!).
Related: Healthy Pesto Sauce Recipes
- 263 calories
- 6g protein
- 24g fat
- 4g saturated fat
- 6g carbohydrate
- 1g fiber
- 4g sugar
- 380mg sodium
- 193mg calcium (about 8% DV)
Pesto is typically made with basil, pine nuts, olive oil, Parmesan cheese and garlic. It's a super-flavorful sauce that can be made with different herbs and nuts and without cheese to accommodate vegan or dairy-free diets.
You'll want to be mindful of the sodium content. Some jars have more than 500mg per serving and the Dietary Guidelines recommends you eat no more than 2,300mg per day. It would be hard to stay in those guidelines if you get more than 20% of your sodium from pesto. Most of the fat in pesto is coming from oil and nuts, so you're getting the heart-healthy kind. There is some saturated fat in pesto too, thanks to the cheese, but not a lot.
You might also not use a 1/4 cup on everything (that serving size is fairly generous for a rich and flavorful sauce like pesto). I find on pizza, I can spread pesto nice and thin. This Sausage, Mushroom & Pesto Grilled Pizza uses 1/4 cup of pesto for 4 servings. Our delicious Campfire Caprese Grilled Cheese sandwiches use 3 tablespoons for 4 sandwiches. So, if you're worried about the sodium and calories in pesto, try using a little less than 1/4 cup. I would start with 1 to 2 tablespoons and see if you want to add more. Thinning out your pesto sauce with some starchy pasta water is also a great way to coat your noodles, while using a bit less pesto, and still getting a very creamy sauce.
Is Pesto OK for Weight Loss?
I'm a true believer that any food can fit into your diet, even if you're trying to lose weight. Pesto is flavorful and bright and can liven up vegetables, pizza, potatoes and pasta. It's also high in heathy fats, which help keep you satisfied. Fat may be higher in calories, but it also takes longer to digest (read: satisfying) and allows your body to absorb fat-soluble vitamins, A, D, E and K.
You might not want to douse everything you eat with pesto, but really you wouldn't want to do that with any food. Variety and moderation are important. Pesto can be a healthier replacement for cream-based sauces, since it's made with olive oil and nuts. Try Zucchini Noodles with Pesto & Chicken for a veggie-packed dinner or Pesto, Mozzarella & Egg Breakfast Sandwich for a high-protein breakfast.
Store-Bought vs. Homemade
Using store-bought pesto can be a time saver for busy weeknights. You'll want to check labels and see how much sodium there is, and also which oils and nuts they're using. I find the flavor of refrigerated pesto to be a little bit brighter and closer to homemade, but the shelf-stable pesto is also delicious and nice to have on hand (pro tip, freeze your pesto to help it last longer).
Making your own allows you to control the salt levels and also have fun with herbs, nuts and different flavors (here's how to turn any herb into pesto). You can also make vegan pesto (with cashews and nutritional yeast) or try our dairy-free avocado pesto, which is super creamy. I love whipping up pesto in the summertime when we have basil growing, otherwise I usually rely on store-bought. If you don't have basil growing at your house it may not be that much cheaper to make your own. Fresh herbs, pine nuts and Parmesan cheese are all pricey ingredients.
Pesto is higher in calories than some sauces but it's also made with super-healthy ingredients, like basil, olive oil and nuts. I find it's a great way to add more flavor to pasta dishes and even vegetables and proteins. Making it your own can be flavorful, but store-bought pestos have saved me on plenty of busy nights. If you're buying pesto at the store, check the sodium levels and ingredients to find a brand you like.