I’ve always been a pasta fan and much to the horror of the diet-conscious around me, quite happy to eat it with creamy or cheesy sauces. I love a good carbonara with pancetta or prosciutto in it. I was always surprised when people told me the reason pasta was so terrible was that it was fattening. But now it seems that research is showing that the idea that pasta is fattening may be a myth.
Why is pasta seen as fattening?
The idea that pasta and along with it bread, potatoes and rice are fattening comes from the fact that they are carbohydrates. A lot of popular diets in recent years have demonised carbohydrates as the cause of all our problems but it seems there isn’t actually much evidence to prove this.
In the same way that butter, salt, eggs and other so-called bad foods have receive something of a reprieve in recent times, pasta has actually shown not to be fattening in itself. In fact, the problem often comes from what we add to the pasta (there’s me with my carbonara in the bad books again) or the amount we eat.
The facts about pasta
For starters, cooked pasta has quite a low glycaemic index figure, just 45 from a scale of 1 to 100. People often ask is whole wheat pasta less fattening than normal varieties and it is true that it does have a slightly lower GI figure, but only by three – 42 in place of 45.
The GI index ranks carbohydrates based on how they affect blood sugar levels and anything with a number less than 55 is metabolised slowly, therefore has a less serious effect on blood sugar. What does this mean in terms of how fattening pasta is? It means it turns to sugar much slower, one of the reasons it is often said to be fattening.
The Mediterranean diet
One of the main reasons that this reconsideration has taken place is the Mediterranean Diet. This is the name given to the normal styles of eating in places such as Italy, Greece and Spain. Studies have shown this type of diet is great for losing weight and also for heart health.
But what kind of foods do Mediterranean’s eat? For starters, they eat plenty of starchy foods including pasta and bread. They also eat a lot of fruit and vegetables as well as some fish but less meat than we normally do. They are also picky about choosing products made with vegetable and plant oils, such as olive oil.
This has been translated into a series of guidelines by the NHS and other health professionals. They advise to:
- Base meals on starchy carbohydrates including pasta, rice, bread and potatoes. Swap up for wholegrain varieties where you can and try to eat potatoes skins for their fibre
- Get your five a day or fruit and vegetables into the diet
- Try to include some sources of lean protein including fish, meat, eggs, beans and pulses
- Include some milk and dairy foods including cheese for their protein and calcium content
- Keep amounts of fatty foods or those high in sugar to small amounts or eat them less frequently
Facts about the Mediterranean Diet
So why have people suddenly decided that the Mediterranean Diet may be the way to go? One piece of research comes from the Neuromed Institute. The study included 14,402 participants over the age of 35 from the Molise area of southern Italy. Another group over nearly 9,000 people aged 18+ from across the country were also analysed in a separate study.
A questionnaire was used to see what people had eaten over the last 24 hours including time, place, detailed description of foods, beverages, quantity consumed and even the brand. Questions included whether they were following a certain diet and if the food was their normal type of dishes. As well as portion sizes, the individual’s weight, height, waist and hip measurements were taken.
The results found no correlation between eating pasta and being overweight and actually the opposite was found to be true – those eating pasta were actually slimmer. Another note was that the portion sizes were moderate and that they managed to fit in their fish and vegetables.
The question of whether pasta is fattening is one that may go on being asked for some time yet. But in the majority of cases, it seems that eaten in moderation and balanced with the right kinds of food, there’s no reason we can enjoy a nice spaghetti Bolognese or a carbonara without sudden fear of an expanding waistline.