Have you ever wondered why the Mediterranean diet is so beneficial for health despite featuring ladles of pasta? Pasta is usually considered a fattening food. Made from semolina (durum wheat) flour, egg, salt and water, a hundred grams of dry pasta provides a hefty 75g carbohydrate. When cooked, this absorbs water so that the carbohydrate content more than halves to around 31g/100g. Even so, eating pasta might be expected to have a high glycemic index (GI) and to cause a dramatic up-swing in blood glucose levels, triggering release of insulin – the main fat-storing hormone in the body. So what does the evidence say – is pasta fattening or not? A study published in Nutrition & Diabetes seems to show that pasta is not as fattening as many believe. Or is it?
Pasta and glycaemic index
Surprisingly, cooked pasta has a relatively low glycemic index (GI) for white pasta (GI 45 on a 0 to 100 scale) and brown wholegrain versions (typical GI 42). Eating pasta does not cause the expected glucose rush. This is because of the unique way in which the ungelatinised starch granules within pasta are physically trapped by the sponge-like network of gluten molecules within the pasta dough. The firmer the pasta is when you eat it, the lower its glycemic index and the less fattening pasta becomes. So when you cook pasta, ensure it remains al dente (firm to the bite) rather than soft.
Even so, pasta is a no-no on most diets – despite the fact that it’s a staple food for many people following the ultra-healthy Mediterranean diet.
Pasta versus BMI
Researchers interested in whether pasta is fattening or not examined the diets of over 23,300 Italians and compared these against their height, waist and hip circumferences.
What they found was a positive association between overall pasta intake and body mass index (BMI) for both men (blue line) and women (red line).
I interpret this graph to show that most participants were already overweight with a BMI greater than 25 – whether they ate pasta or not.
What’s more, those who ate 100g pasta were heavier than those who ate none, and those who ate 200g pasta per day (or more) were the heaviest of all.
So how does this translate into the appealing headlines that claim pasta is not fattening, when it seems to clearly show that those who at the most pasta were fatter than those that ate the least?
Statistical wizardry shows pasta is not fattening
The researchers performed some sophisticated number crunching to take account of pasta and energy intakes in relation to height and weight, and therefore energy needs.
This generated a very different looking graph in which there was a significant negative association between the amounts of pasta eaten in relation to body mass index.
Using the magic wand of statistics, it seems that those who ate the most pasta had the lowest body mass index (BMI), waist circumference and a healthier waist-to-hip ratio. This reversal of the chart suggests that the answer to the question ‘Is pasta fattening’ is ‘No.’
Whether or not this convinces you that pasta isn’t fattening, it’s important to note that these findings were within the context of following a Mediterranean style diet. Those eating the most pasta also followed the Mediterranean diet most closely, and ate plenty of cooked tomatoes, onions, garlic and olive oil. No doubt they enjoyed red wine on a regular basis, too.
Brown pasta is least fattening
Brown or wholegrain pasta is slightly less fattening than white pasta, as it has a slightly lower glycemic index and contains some fibre which is more filling. Keep portions of brown pasta small (50g to 100g cooked weight) and eat it al dente with a vegetable-based sauce.
Spelt pasta has a higher protein content and is less fattening than traditional wheat pasta. You can also try low-calorie sea spaghetti pasta made from seaweed, which is full of beneficial minerals and goes well with fish-based sauces such as tuna and tomato.
Vegetable pasta is not fattening at all
Portion control is key. If you love pasta, but want to lose weight, then eat less than you are used to, select tomato-based sauces rather than more calorific creamy ones, and experiment with replacing some – if not all – of the pasta with vegetable spaghetti made using a spiralizer.
A spiraliser is an essential kitchen gadget that quickly cuts long, noodle-like strips or spiral slices from carrots, courgettes, sweet potato, purple cabbage, cucumber and other firm vegetables. I wouldn’t be without mine. In fact, I have two – a heavy-duty one to make non-fattening pasta for the whole family, and a hand-held spiraliser to create pasta for one, or vegetable garnishes.
My Spiralizer Tri-Blade Vegetable Slicer quickly converts carrots and courgette/zuchini into low carb spaghetti or tagliatelle alternatives. Heavy duty and with a selection of 3 blades, it is excellent value.
Versions with five blades are also available.
For quick, small portions of vegetable spaghetti, or to make long spaghetti-like strands of carrot and other veg to add to salads or coleslaw, I use the hand-held Spirelli.
The Spirelli is perfect for keeping handy in a drawer.
It quickly converts vegetables into healthy and attractive garnishes to scatter over dishes and salads, or to steam or boil for vegetable pasta.
One of my favourite vegetable pasta recipe books is Inspiralized by Ali Maffucci. This New York Times best-seller provides inspiration and shows you how to turn vegetables and fruit into healthy, weight-loss dishes that won’t leave you feeling deprived.
Pasta really doesn’t need to be fattening at all!
Image credits: webaspcat/pixabay