Is Pasta Healthy? The Answer May Surprise You

Is Pasta Healthy? The Answer May Surprise You

Is pasta healthy - Dr. Axe

Is pasta healthy? Like other processed carbohydrates — including most cereals, bread and baked goods— pasta has been deemed a problematic food when it comes to packing on the pounds. In fact, in recent decades pasta has even been blamed for contributing to the obesity epidemic, despite the fact that it’s been a staple food in countries such as Italy for hundreds of years. (1)

If you’re a lover of pasta, then you’re probably wondering: is pasta healthy, or is pasta bad for you? A recent meta-analysis sought out to answer this very question. And findings from the analysis have been surprising for many people— especially those who have had great success following low-carb diets, such as the paleo diet or ketogenic diet.

Is Pasta Healthy? Study Details

A 2018 systematic review investigating the effects of eating pasta is taking the diet and health industry by storm. The meta-analysis published in the journal BMJ included findings from 29 randomized controlled trials containing about 2,500 participants. The objective of the analysis? To determine how including pasta in a low-glycemic index diet affects body weight and markers of adiposity (a condition of being severely overweight or obese) in adults. (2)

So what did the pasta study say — is pasta good for you to lose weight? Is pasta healthy? Or is it contributing to the rising rates of overweight/obesity? Many studies included in the review actually point to a relationship between eating pasta and losing weight. Researchers measured the study participants’ body weight, BMI, body fat, and waist measurements to determine if eating pasta did or did not contribute to changes in weight and body fat.

In the end, researchers concluded that “pasta in the context of low-GI dietary patterns significantly reduced body weight and BMI compared with higher-GI dietary patterns. There was no effect on other measures of adiposity.” The average length of the studies included in the review was 12 weeks. The analysis showed that pasta in the context of a low-GI diet had the effect of reducing body weight by an average of 0.26 to 0.63 kg (or 0.5 t0 1.38 pounds.) compared with higher-GI control diets. That may not seem like a lot of weight loss, but it also shows that eating pasta as part of a low-glycemic index diet doesn’t cause weight gain, either.

How can this be? The key here is that pasta may help with weight loss/weight maintenance in the context of low-GI dietary patterns. Pasta intake has been associated with better adherence to the Mediterranean diet, a dietary pattern which has a demonstrated metabolic and cardiovascular benefit

Is pasta healthy - Dr. Axe

As we’ll cover more below, the study participants who lost weight eating pasta actually ate pasta as part of an overall healthy, low-glycemic index diet. In other words, they may have eaten pasta regularly — on average a little more than three 1/2-cup servings each per week — but they still limited the overall amount of processed carbohydrates and added sugar consumed. This suggests that the study participants were able to lose or maintain weight by balancing their overall nutrient intake. I’ll share more tips on how to do this below.

Is Pasta Healthy? Or Is Pasta Fattening?

How Pasta Can Be Part of a Healthy Diet:

It seems that pasta can be healthy when it’s eaten in moderate amounts, and when consumed with other healthy foods. But of course, the opposite is also likely true: eating lots of pasta and not many other low-calorie, nutrient-dense foods will not benefit your waistline or your health.

Is pasta healthy? It really boils down to more than just the pasta. The pasta itself isn’t necessarily fattening. One serving of cooked pasta (about one cup) has about: 210 calories, one gram of fat, 43 grams of carbs, three grams of fiber, and six grams of protein. (3) If your diet includes plenty of unprocessed foods — especially nutrient-dense fresh vegetables — then eating one serving of pasta several times per week may not be a deal breaker. On the other hand, it’s easy to eat two or three servings of pasta at one time if you’re not careful, especially since restaurants tend to serve this amount (or often even more).

Lower-glycemic index (GI) foods are shown to:

  • Help you feel full faster
  • Delay hunger
  • Decrease subsequent calorie intake
  • Offer some protection against obesity (4)

Pasta has been found to have a similar GI compared with many fiber-rich carbohydrates, including barley, legumes and steel cut oats. Pasta also has a lower GI compared with some high fiber foods, including whole-wheat bread, breakfast cereals like bran flakes and potatoes with skin.
As a comparison, according to Harvard Medical School’s glycemic index chart, regular spaghetti has a GI score of 49, while a white potato’s GI score is 78. White rice’s GI score is 73. (5)

The study also found that white wheat pasta has a higher micronutrient content compared with other white wheat products like bread since it contains an aleurone layer, which is preserved as a result of the use of harder kinds of wheat (like durum wheat).

Pasta retains a lower glycemic response primarily due to the processing techniques used in pasta making, which gives it a compact structure and reduces starch absorption. Pasta has also been a traditional part of the Mediterranean Diet, which has been shown to help prevent the development of cardiovascular disease, breast cancer, depression, colorectal cancer, diabetes, obesity, asthma, erectile dysfunction and cognitive decline. (6)

How Pasta May Be Fattening & Harmful to Digestion:

Is pasta healthy? It depends what you eat with it and how your digestion works. The fact that heaps of pasta contribute lots of calories and processed carbohydrates to your diet is not the only problem. Another issue? Pasta is a concentrated source of gluten, a type of hard-to-digest protein that’s found in grains like wheat, rye and barley. Gluten is found in not only pasta, but also all other products containing wheat flour, including bread, wraps, cereals, cookies, cakes and some tortillas.

What’s wrong with eating gluten? Gluten-containing grains contain oligosaccharides, a type of short-chain carbohydrate that is easily fermentable in the gut, which can lead to a number of digestive issues. Depending on the person, gluten may contribute to intestinal permeability (aka leaky gut), reduce nutrient absorption, cause autoimmune responses, deplete energy and increase cravings. Gluten is naturally found in wheat/wheat flour — it’s what gives foods many baked goods their pleasing texture and feel in your mouth. Plus it’s added to many other foods to modify the stability and structure of products, such as marinades, salad dressings, condiments and deli meats.

I recommend a gluten-free diet for the majority of people because cutting out gluten seems to offer several benefits. These include:

  • Maintaining higher energy levels
  • Less inflammation
  • Better control of cravings
  • Easing digestive symptoms like gas, bloating, diarrhea or others tied to IBS

While many people have a hard time digesting gluten properly, it’s also true that others may have no issue eating gluten. Gluten intolerance/sensitivity occurs on a spectrum, so you might have a very hard time digesting it, sort of a hard time or no problem at all. It really depends on many factors, including your genetics, gut health, medical history, stress levels and overall diet. (7)

So all of that being said, is pasta really bad for you? Is pasta healthy? It may or may not be. I don’t recommend people go out of their way to eat pasta, and in fact, I usually recommend avoiding it. However, whether or not you should eat pasta really depends on your individual response to eating wheat, your weight loss goals, your ability to control your portion size and of course your overall diet (what other foods you eat pasta with).

The Key? The Glycemic Index

Researchers involved in the pasta study believe that pasta may not contribute to weight gain, and may actually support weight loss when it’s included in an overall low glycemic index diet. What exactly is the glycemic index?

The glycemic index is a system used to rate how quickly glucose/sugar from foods affects blood sugar levels. Processed carbohydrates and those that contain lots of sugar are usually high-glycemic foods.

Examples of high GI foods include:

  • Soda
  • Most juices
  • Most cereals
  • White rice
  • White bread
  • White potatoes
  • Cookies
  • Cakes

The carbs/sugars in these foods are digested rapidly, raising blood sugar levels quickly. But then blood sugar levels plummet quickly after eating high these GI foods, for some people leading to a “crash” in energy and cravings for more carbs.

Low-GI foods tend to have a different effect. They gradually cause blood sugar levels to rise, since the carbs/sugars in these foods are digested more slowly thanks to the beneficial effect of fiber.

Examples of low-GI foods include:

  • All non-starchy vegetables
  • Some fruits
  • 100 percent whole grains like steel cut oats and quinoa
  • Beans and lentils
  • Fats and proteins

Meats and oil don’t contain carbohydrates and therefore have a GI score of zero.

How you combine different foods is very important when it comes to digestion and blood sugar management. Pairing low GI carbs with a healthy source of fat and protein (such as olive or coconut oil, eggs, and fish, for example) can be helpful for managing blood sugar levels, energy and hunger. Overall, you can think of a low-glycemic diet as a “slow carb diet.” There are many low-carb foods that also qualify as low glycemic foods because of their ability to prevent a strong release of insulin and blood sugar fluctuations after eating.

In case you’re confused about glycemic load versus glycemic index scores, here’s what you need to know: glycemic load (GL) scores take into account the GI score of a particular carbohydrate, but also considers how the carbs in the food affect blood sugar levels when eaten in average portions and with other foods. This means that a food’s glycemic load (GL) score may be a better predictor of whether or not a food eaten in moderate amounts as part of a whole meal is generally healthy or not.

Here are 7 tips for eating pasta as part of a low-glycemic diet:

1. Choose Whole, Sprouted Grains

Choose whole grains over processed/refined grains. Eating whole grains is less likely to cause weight gain and has been associated with lower BMI and body fat percentage. (8 ,9) Try a sprouted whole grain pasta, which will contain more fiber and be lower GI. Aside from eating pasta, get to know a variety of unprocessed whole grains, such as steel-cut oats, brown rice, wild rice, sprouted grain breads, granola and muesli, and whole-wheat pasta.

2. Watch Your Portion Size

A moderate serving of healthy complex carbs equates to about a half cup of uncooked or one cup cooked. Try to have only one cup of cooked pasta at one time.

3. Prepare Pasta Al Dente

Cook pasta al dente in order to help lower its GI index. Al dente pasta is slightly hard/undercooked, or at least not overcooked and mushy. Not overcooking pasta means that the carbs will impact blood sugar less rapidly.

4. Add Lots of Veggies

While the meta-analysis mentioned above found that eating pasta didn’t contribute to weight gain, keep in mind that the study participants weren’t eating pasta dishes covered with creamy sauces, loads of cheese and unprocessed meats. They were more likely eating pasta with healthy Mediterranean Diet foods, such as olive oil and veggies and beans.

Try to include veggies with every meal, including with pasta. Aim for a variety of types, such as leafy greens, broccoli, spinach, onion, green beans, artichokes, peppers, and others. Adding veggies to pasta will allow you to eat a larger volume of food, making you feel fuller, without adding lots of extra calories. This is a great way to control your portion size and prevent over-eating.

5. Combine Carbs With Healthy Fats & Protein

Eat pasta with a healthy source of protein and fat to lower the GL of the meal. Animal proteins are zero GI foods, containing very little or zero carbs. Choose wild fish, such as salmon, free-range eggs, grass-fed beef or lamb, raw dairy products (including yogurt, kefir or raw cheeses), cage-free eggs, and pasture-raised poultry.

Healthy fats and oils have a GI score of zero since they contain no sugar/starch/carbs. They don’t significantly impact blood glucose or insulin levels and can be added to pasta to reduce their GI load. Add virgin olive oil, avocado oil, truffle oil, ghee, or grass-fed butter to pasta to add more taste and make it more satisfying.

6. Add More Fiber To Slow Digestion

Try to eat more high fiber foods and complex carbohydrates, which consist of longer chains of simple sugars. Examples include beans, legumes, many veggies, nuts, seeds and 100 percent whole grains.

  • Veggies are the best way to boost the fiber content of meals.
  • Beans and legumes have GL values and can be added to pasta to provide fiber and protein. Ideally, eat these in small amounts (about 1/2 cup at once) to help with digestion.
  • Also eat nuts and seeds, which provide fiber and healthy fats. Try chia seeds, flaxseeds, pumpkin seeds, almonds, and walnuts.

7. Focus On Overall Nutrient Density

To further round out your diet and boost your nutrient intake, follow these tips:

  • Eat fresh fruit when you’re craving sweets. Some fruits like apples, strawberries, peaches and others are called “simple carbs” because they contain natural sugar, so these are sometimes called GI foods, however, they can still be part of a balanced diet.
  • Acidic foods seem to help lower the GI of certain foods. Use vinegar-based dressings on pasta salads, try apple cider vinegar taken with water, have fermented yogurt with cereal, and add some lemon juice on pasta or vegetables.
  • Fermented dairy products (full fat) are a good source of probiotics, fat and protein. Choose plain, unsweetened yogurt, raw whole milk and traditionally made cheeses (choose organic, aged and raw when possible).

Final Thoughts On Pasta: Is Pasta Healthy or Is Pasta Fattening?

  • Is pasta healthy? A 2018 meta-analysis set out to find the answer and discovered that adults who ate pasta as part of a low glycemic diet did not gain weight, but actually lost a small amount of weight compared to people eating a higher glycemic diet.
  • Is pasta good if you are on a diet? Pasta may not contribute to weight gain, and may actually support weight loss when it’s included in an overall low glycemic index (GI) diet. A Low GI diet includes plenty of veggies, healthy fats and protein, and little added sugar and processed grains.
  • Is pasta healthy? Pasta may still be fattening if you eat too much of it, don’t add any veggies which are filling and cover it with heavy sauces. Pasta also contains gluten, which can be hard on digestion.

Some tips for making pasta healthier and eating a low GI include:

  • Choosing whole grain
  • Preparing pasta al dente
  • Watching your portion size
  • Adding veggies
  • Having pasta with fats and protein
  • Consuming more fiber
  • Focusing on overall nutrient-density of your diet

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