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.
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.
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.
If you’re worried about your calorie levels and weight gain, it’s not that simple either.
In the context of an otherwise healthy diet, it has been shown that people lose more weight when their diet includes pasta regularly. And a systematic review of 10 different studies found that pasta was better for post-meal blood sugar levels than bread or potatoes.
Instead of giving up spaghetti, consider reducing portion sizes, or switching to whole-grain pasta, which is higher in fiber and has benefits for gut health and can help you feel fuller for longer.
Gluten-free pasta contains slightly less protein than wheat pasta. So, while it’s healthier for people with a gluten intolerance, there are no increased health benefits in switching to gluten-free pasta for most of us.
Pass on the pesto and leftover bolognese
Pasta is not usually eaten on its own. So, while some warn of the risk of blood sugar spikes when eating “naked carbs” (meaning only carbs without other foods), this is not a danger with pasta.
When pasta provides the foundation of a meal, it can be a way to help people eat more vegetables in smooth or chunky vegetable sauces. For kids (or picky adults), pasta sauce can be a great hiding place for pureed or grated vegetables.
Not eating pasta alone is also important to your protein profile. Plant foods are not usually complete proteins, which means we need to eat combinations of them to get all the different types of amino acids (the building blocks of proteins) that we need to survive.
But pasta, although we often focus on carbohydrates and energy, has good nutritional value. Like most foods, they are not only macronutrients but micronutrients as well.
One cup of cooked pasta contains about a quarter of our recommended daily intakes of vitamins B1 and B9, half of our recommended intake of selenium, and 10 percent of our iron needs.
Pasta gets even better when we eat it as leftovers. When pasta is cooked and cooled, some of the carbohydrates turn into resistant starch. This starch gets its name from being resistant to digestion, so it contributes less energy and is better for blood sugar levels. So your leftover pasta, even if you reheat it, is lower in calories than the night before.
Look closely at the “carb” options.
There is a lot of talk about reducing your carb intake for weight loss, but remember that carbs come in different forms and in different foods.
Some, like pasta, bring other benefits. Others like cakes and desserts, add very little. When we talk about limiting your intake of refined carbs, think first of the sweets eaten on their own, before you cut out the staple carbs often served with vegetables – arguably the healthiest staple food group!
Emma Beckett is a Senior Lecturer (Food Science and Human Nutrition) in the School of Life and Environment Sciences, Newcastle University. This piece first appeared on The Conversation.