Why you don’t need to be afraid of pasta
I’m a firm believer that no matter how healthy a food is, if it doesn’t taste good I won’t eat it.
Whole grain pasta is a case in point. I’ve tried several varieties in the past and just don’t like the taste and texture anywhere near as much as regular white pasta. So, white pasta remains my pasta of choice — and also the pasta of choice for most Italians (in fact white pasta has been far more popular than whole grain pasta in Italy for generations).
But isn’t white pasta fattening? Like any food, if pasta is eaten in excess it will cause weight gain — especially if it’s eaten the typical calorie-laden Western way: topped with lots of meaty, creamy and cheesy sauces. However if it’s eaten in sensible-sized portions and accompanied with other Italian-style ingredients, regular pasta won’t make you fat and can even help you lose weight.
But what about the reputation white pasta has for causing blood sugar spikes and being virtually devoid of nutrients? These are actually both continually perpetuated myths, and I wrote an article a while back for the food website Culinate called The Pasta Myth which debunks both of these myths. As this month is “National Pasta Month” and these myths still persist I thought I’d share an excerpt from that article on this site to help clear up any confusion you may have:
Let’s start by looking at the first myth, that pasta is a disaster for blood-sugar levels. When people talk about the adverse effect refined grain products can have on blood-sugar levels, they typically point to the glycemic index. The index is a ranking system developed in the early 1980s by Canadian scientists led by Dr. David Jenkins from the University of Toronto; it measures how quickly carbohydrate-containing foods raise blood-sugar levels. The higher the score, the faster the increase in blood-sugar levels.
However, unlike most refined grain foods, Italian-style pasta digests slowly because it’s made from a special hard type of wheat called durum wheat. Indeed, Jenkins pointed this fact out very publicly at a pasta conference held in Rome in February 2004, at the height of the low-carb craze in North America. “Pasta, with its dense compact structure, is a low glycemic-index food,” stated Jenkins, before declaring that “traditional carbohydrate foods are in. Pasta has been resurrected.”
Jenkins also noted that if other slowly digesting foods are eaten along with the pasta, the overall meal will have even less effect on blood sugars. And that’s a very important point to remember, because it’s not the individual parts of a meal that affect blood-sugar levels but the combined elements. That’s why in Asian cultures — in which relatively fast-digesting white rice is a staple — blood-sugar spikes aren’t a problem, because rice is traditionally eaten with slowly digesting foods like fish, beans (including tofu), poultry, plant oils, and fiber-rich vegetables.
The second myth surrounding white pasta is that it has almost no nutritional value. Actually, a cup of cooked pasta — which contains only around 200 calories — provides your body with the same amount of dietary fiber as a slice of whole-grain bread, as well as more than 15 different health-promoting vitamins and minerals, including calcium, iron, potassium, thiamin, and niacin. Durum wheat is also one of the most protein-rich of all grains, and a cup of cooked pasta contains more than 8 grams of protein.
In addition, the carbohydrate in pasta is a very important macronutrient, supplying your body with glucose, which is the favored fuel for your muscles, brain, and central nervous system.
Another benefit to pasta is that not only is it a healthy and tasty food alone, it’s also a great vehicle for such appetizing and nutrient-dense foods as fresh seasonal vegetables, olive oil, and protein sources like seafood, poultry, and beans.
With all these benefits, it’s little wonder that pasta has been revered by generations of lean and healthy Italians. And with the popularity of the Mediterranean diet growing worldwide, perhaps pasta will regain the respect it deserves from American consumers too.
If this has put you in the mood for pasta, here are some of our favorite pasta recipes to help you celebrate National Pasta Month:
- Pasta puttanesca
- Lentil and tuna Bolognese
- Basil and almond pesto pasta with broccoli, peas and zucchini
- Tuna, zucchini and basil pasta
- Greek-style pasta with white beans, walnuts, spinach and olives
- Pasta with tuna, broccoli, olives, sun-dried tomatoes and basil
- Mushroom ragu with penne
- Pumpkin, spinach, pine nut and Parmesan pasta