Stop hating on pasta – it actually contains a healthy proportion of carbs, protein, and fat

New year, new you, new diet. It’s a familiar refrain. One popular dieting technique is to create a food blacklist. Giving up on “carbs” or packaged foods is common, which may mean avoiding staples like pasta.

But do we really need to ban pasta to improve our diet?

This is what we call the reductionist approach to nutrition, where we prescribe a food based on only one of its main components. Pasta is not just a carbohydrate. One cup (about 145 grams) of cooked pasta contains about 38 grams of carbohydrates, 7.7 grams of protein and 0.6 grams of fat. Plus, there’s all the water that cooking absorbs and lots of vitamins and minerals.

“But pasta is mostly carbohydrates!” I hear you cry. This is true, but it is not the whole story. We need to think about context.

Your day on a plate

You probably know that there are recommendations for how much energy (kilojoules or calories) we should take in per day. These recommendations are based on body size, gender, and physical activity. But you may not realize that there are also recommendations about the characteristics of the macronutrients — or types of food — that supply this energy.

Fats, carbohydrates and proteins are macronutrients. Macronutrients are broken down in the body to produce energy for our bodies.

The pasta is really better the next day. Leftovers are lower in calories when refrigerated and reheated.(ABC Everyday: Julia Busuttil Nishimura)

Acceptable macronutrient distribution ranges describe the ratio or percentage of macronutrients that should provide this energy. These ranges are set by experts based on health outcomes and healthy eating models. They aim to make sure we get enough, but not too much, of each macro. Consuming too much or too little of any type of food can have health consequences.

Ratios are also designed to make sure we get enough vitamins and minerals that come with energy in the foods we usually eat. We should get 45-65% of our energy from carbohydrates, 10-30% from proteins, 20-35% from fats.

Mangia pasta

The macronutrient ratios mean that it can be healthy to eat up to 1.2 to 6.5 times more carbohydrates per day than protein – because every gram of protein contains the same amount of energy as a gram of carbohydrate.

The ratio of carbohydrates to protein in pasta is 38 grams to 7.7 grams, which is roughly equivalent to a 5:1 ratio, well within the acceptable distribution of macronutrients. Pasta actually contains enough protein to balance out the carbohydrates. This isn’t just because of the eggs in the pasta either. Wheat is another source of protein, making up about 20 percent of the proteins eaten globally.

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