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Good news – eating pasta won't make you fat

Hattie Garlick with a plate of pasta
Hattie Garlick: ‘If you are keeping an eye on your weight, pasta could even have some positives’ - Tony Buckingham

It is the answer to many of life’s most pressing questions. How to coax food into a fussy toddler? Pasta. How to feed a crowd on a budget? Pasta. How to get supper on the table in a rush? Pasta. Britain loves it. Sixty-eight per cent of us eat it at least once a week. Forty-two per cent stick a fork in it multiple times. Traditionally, however, we have viewed it as something of a guilty pleasure. A plate piled high with carbohydrates (topped, in all probability, with parmesan) is a sure-fire path to piling on the pounds. Or is it?

Gregg Wallace cast himself as protector of pasta this week, having recently lost an impressive five stone in weight. “We all think we have to not have carbs,” the Masterchef presenter told Radio 2. But: “think about this Mediterranean diet, the French, the amount of bread they consume, all slim... the Italians, the amount of pasta. But they’re all slim. It’s not the carbs.” Instead, he suggested, gentle exercise, home cooked meals and cutting out snacks are the secret to shedding weight. So has pasta been unfairly demonised and if so, what’s the perfect recipe for our health?

Health benefits of the Mediterranean diet

The Mediterranean diet has indeed been hailed as one of the healthiest in the world – combating heart disease and Type 2 diabetes and, yes, promoting healthy weight loss. In fact, one study involving more than 30,000 people living in Italy, found that those who followed the Mediterranean diet for about 12 years were less likely to become overweight or obese. The pasta course, however, is rarely singled out for this praise.

Instead: “The Mediterranean diet is primarily composed of vegetables, fresh fruits, lots of legumes and whole grains,” explains clinical nutritionist and research scientist Dr Federica Amati, who – though she works in the UK - is herself Italian, born in Rome. “Italy is the country with the highest consumption of legumes, one of the highest of extra virgin olive oil, and the lowest amount of UPFs in Europe.” Rather than the pasta, she suggests, “it’s the whole foods that we add to our plate that make the difference.”

Why carbohydrates could help you live longer

We often hear that we need to cut carbs to lose weight, but going too low could damage your health. In fact, a 2018 study in The Lancet suggested that a 50-year-old who got half their calories from carbohydrates might live four years longer than one who got 30 per cent of their calories from carbs – and a year longer than one who got more than 65 per cent of their calories from carbs.

Compared to other refined carbohydrates, pasta is far from the worst offender
Compared to other refined carbohydrates, pasta is far from the worst offender - Tony Buckingham

If you are keeping an eye on your weight, pasta could even have some positives. In 2016, the Nutrition and Diabetes journal published a study showing that people who ate pasta as part of a Mediterranean diet had a lower BMI and smaller waist circumference and better waist-hip ratio than those who ate the Mediterranean way, but excluded pasta from their diets. “Pasta is often considered not adequate when you want to lose weight, and some people completely ban it from their meals. In light of this research, we can say that this is not a correct attitude,” said Licia Iacoviello from Italy’s Neuromed Institute. It was a triumphant vindication. But why?

Well, partly because – when compared to other refined carbohydrates - pasta is far from the worst offender. Durum wheat, from which pasta has traditionally been made, has a significantly lower glycaemic index than common or bread wheat, or indeed white rice, meaning that its impact on blood glucose levels is lower. In fact, a large 2021 study published in the BMJ found that – for postmenopausal women at least – replacing the white bread or fried potatoes in their diet with pasta was associated with a lower risk of heart disease. Those who ate it three or four times a week were 9 percent less likely to develop heart disease than those who ate it less than once a week.

Buy better

You can hack pasta’s powers further. First by shopping selectively. “The quality of pasta makes a remarkable difference to its nutritional qualities,” says Amati. “When [epidemiologist and co-founder of cult nutrition company ZOE] Tim Spector and I analysed different pasta compositions for his book, Food for Life, it was surprising to see how much more protein traditional pasta has compared with more commercial, cheaper ones.”

Durum wheat pasta, for example, is higher in protein and has a glycaemic index of around 47, while an equivalent made from common wheat will have one of around 68

Choose good quality pasta made from durum wheat and keep an eye on portion sizes
Buy better: choose good quality pasta made from durum wheat and keep an eye on portion sizes - Tony Buckingham

You could also plump for wholegrain or brown pasta over the more common white stuff, suggests leading nutritional therapist Lucy Miller. In refined pasta: “the wheat kernel has been stripped of the germ and the bran along with the nutrients that they contain, making it higher in calories and lower in fibre and other nutrients. Wholegrain pasta tends to be lower in calories and higher in B vitamins, selenium, copper, phosphorous, manganese as well as fibre which will help to keep you feeling fuller for longer.”

Wholegrain pasta has three and half times more fibre than its white equivalent, agrees Dr Emily Leeming, dietician and author of forthcoming book Genius Gut. In fact: “pasta and other carbs have been unfairly demonised,” she insists. There is nothing inherently fattening about carbohydrates, in fact: “they’re really important for your health - but the trick is to choose ‘complex’ carbohydrates - like wholegrain pasta, wholegrain bread and brown rice - when you can, over ‘simple’ carbohydrates.” Wholegrains, she points out, are great for heart health and your gut microbiome, as well as keeping you satiated.

Cook your way to healthier pasta

How you cook your spaghetti can also tip the scales. “Al dente pasta has a lower glycaemic index because the more you cook it, the more freely available the starches are. Plus it tastes so much better with some bite,” says Amati.

“If you’re cooking pasta – make extra for the next day too,” suggests Leeming. As cooked pasta cools, some of the starches reform into fibre-like starches, she explains.

The cooled pasta becomes resistant to the gut enzymes that break carbohydrates down to release glucose, reducing blood sugar surges, meaning you absorb fewer calories. “So your leftover pasta, even when reheated, has extra benefits alongside saving you the hassle of cooking again,” summarises Leeming.

The perfect pasta portion

Pasta may be one of Italy’s most famous exports, but within its borders, it is rarely the main component of a meal, explains Amati. Back in 2017, the celebrity chef Gino D’Acampo’s lambasted the British for failing to understand this, making it the bulk of our meals, and then blaming pasta for our expanding waistlines. So how much pasta should we be eating at a sitting? “It depends on the dish, but typically a handful and a bit works well,” suggests Amati.

Slimming sauces

“As with any meal, if you balance protein, fats and carbohydrates you’ll feel fuller for longer,” says Leeming. It is, she suggests, absolutely fine to inhale a huge plate of pasta every once in a while – joyful, even. But in general, it would be wise to aim for the following proportions: one quarter of your plate as pasta, a quarter some form of protein, and the remaining half vegetables.

“I really like making a caponata style sauce with aubergine, peppers, garlic, tomatoes and zucchini with lots of basil and shredded chicken,” she adds. The chicken provides protein, the vegetables fibre, and a drizzle of extra virgin olive oil adds fats. “It’s all about the sauce,” agrees Miller. “The addition of protein and fats, served with the pasta, will help to reduce blood sugar spikes, because protein and fat are harder to digest than refined carbs.”

If your spaghetti is simply a carrier for cream, bacon, cheese and more cheese, then the calories will, of course, stack up fast. A carbonara is probably best viewed as an occasional, if unutterably delicious, indulgence. On the other hand: “When we eat pasta as a vehicle through which to enjoy more vegetables and pulses, as well as oily fish, we absolutely can eat it several times a week,” says Amati. The key, she suggests, is to be both selective about the pasta you eat, and what you eat with it: “Eat good pasta with lots of delicious plants, as an ingredient, not the main component of meals.”

Quality and quantity, it turns out, both matter.

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