But should we really banish pasta to improve our diet?
This is what we call the reductionist approach to nutrition, which consists of prescribing a food from only one of its main components. Pasta is not just a carbohydrate.
One cup (about 145 grams or 5.1 ounces) 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 plenty of vitamins and minerals.
You probably know that there are recommendations for how much energy (kilojoules or calories) we should consume per day. These recommendations are based on height, gender and physical activity.
But you might not realize that there are also recommendations for the characteristics of the macronutrients – or types of food – that provide you with this energy.
Fats, carbohydrates and proteins are macronutrients. Macronutrients are broken down in the body to produce energy for our body.
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 patterns.
The ratios are also designed to ensure that we are getting enough vitamins and minerals that accompany energy from the foods we usually eat. We should get 45-65% of our energy from carbohydrates, 10-30% from protein, and 20-35% from fat.
Macronutrient ratios mean it can be healthy to eat up to 1.2 to 6.5 times more carbs per day than protein – given that each gram of protein contains the same amount of energy as a gram of carbohydrates. The carbohydrate to protein ratio in pasta is 38g to 7.7g, or about five to one (5:1), within the acceptable macronutrient distribution.
And pasta actually contains enough protein to balance out the carbs. And it’s not just because of the eggs in the pasta. Wheat is another source of protein, accounting for around 20% of the protein consumed worldwide.
And if you’re worried about your calorie level and weight gain, that’s not so simple either.
As part of a healthy diet, it has been proven beyond belief that people lose more weight when they regularly include pasta in their diet. A systematic review of 10 different studies found that pasta was better at balancing blood sugar after a meal than bread or potatoes.
Instead of giving up pasta, consider reducing portion sizes or switching to whole-grain pasta, which is higher in fiber, has gut health benefits, and can help you feel full longer.
And gluten-free pasta contains slightly less protein than wheat pasta. So, while it’s healthier for people with gluten intolerance, there aren’t any greater health benefits to switching to gluten-free pasta for most of us.
Pasta is usually not eaten on its own. So while some warn of the risk of high blood sugar from eating “naked carbs” (meaning only carbs with no other foods), pasta is safe.
When pasta is the base of a meal, it can be a way to help people eat more vegetables in smooth or chunky vegetable sauces. And for kids (or fussy adults), pasta sauce can be a great hiding place for pureed or shredded veggies.
Not eating pasta alone is also important for protein stores. Plant foods are generally not complete proteins, which means we have to eat combinations of them to get all the different types of amino acids (the building blocks of protein) we need to survive.
But pasta, although we often focus on carbohydrates and energy, has good nutritional value. And like most foods, they’re not just macronutrients, they also contain micronutrients.
A cup of cooked pasta contains about a quarter of our recommended daily intake of vitamins B1 and B9, half of our recommended intake of selenium and 10% of our iron needs.
When pasta is cooked and cooled, some of the carbohydrates are converted into resistant starch. This starch gets its name from its resistance to digestion, so it provides less energy and is better for blood sugar.
Thus, your leftover pasta, even if you reheat it, is less caloric than the day before.
There’s a lot of talk about reducing your carb intake to lose weight, but remember that carbs come in different forms and in different foods. Some, like pasta, have other benefits. Others, like cakes and pastries, add very little.
And when it comes to limiting your intake of refined carbohydrates, consider sweets first, which are eaten on their own, before cutting out the basic carbohydrates which are often served with vegetables – arguably the food group of the healthiest basis!