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 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.
Pasta and GI
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). It does not cause the expected glucose rush because of the unique way in which the ungelatinised starch granules 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 better, so cook it 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. Now, a study published in Nutrition & Diabetes seems to show that pasta is not as fattening as many believe. Or does it?
Pasta versus BMI
Researchers 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 actually 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 pasta isn’t 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. Hmm.
Whether or not this convinces you that pasta isn’t fattening, it’s important to note that these findings were in 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.
Try vegetable pasta instead
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.
These essential kitchen gadgets quickly cut long, noodle-like strips or spiral slices from carrots, courgettes, sweet potato and other firm vegetables. I wouldn’t be without mine. In fact, I have two.
| 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 blades, it is excellent value.
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| For angel hair spaghetti, I use the hand-held Spirelli which is perfect for keeping handy in a drawer. It quickly converts carrots, courgette and cucumber into a healthy and attractive garnishes to scatter over dishes and salads.
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And if you need inspiration, this New York Times best-seller offers the best recipes. Inspiralised by Ali Maffucci shows you how to turn vegetables and fruit into healthy weight-loss dishes that won’t leave you feeling deprived. Who needs traditional pasta?
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