Can You Eat Pasta Without Getting Fat?

The article in professional journal Nutrition & Diabetes is winning lots more discussion than a typical journal article and that is because it seems to say: go ahead, chow down on pasta, you won't gain weight.

What?

Based on a study of some 24,000 Italians, the research - said the authors, ten Italians - showed that eating pasta helped people stick with the healthy Mediterranean diet. That's good news, but the news get better.

Even more shocking: Pasta consumption, said the doctors, is associated "with a lower prevalence of overweight and obesity."

That's the exact opposite of what many of us think. Have we been wrong?

Incidentally, the study was "partially" supported by giant pasta company Barilla. That does not make it false. But it raises questions.

The biggest question of course is: have we been denying ourselves platters of spaghetti for no good reason? U.S.-based nutritionists are quick to offer advice.

Many experts are ready to end the demonization of pasta. Neal Malik, a registered dietician nutritionist, said: "Pasta and other carbohydrates can be an important part of one's diet." He elaborated: "Pasta can be a good source of many B-vitamins and, if it's a whole grain pasta, a decent source of fiber."

"Pasta has a place in the diet," agreed nutritionist Elana Natker.

Pasta in fact is a good source of fiber and, yes, it contains lots of carbs, but carbs are good for fueling energy. Manganese, selenium, potassium and other minerals also are found in pasta. When there is the choice, experts advise going for a whole grain pasta, not the conventional white wheat flour pasta, mainly because anything whole grain is richer nutritionally than highly processed white flour. In that latter regard, many nutritionists lump traditional white pasta with white bread and white rice - stuff that is better to avoid than to consume and to certainly not consume it in quantity.

Size, in fact, is exactly the problem with pasta. "With pasta, most people eat two to three times the amount they should," said Natker. 

Nutritionists say the right portion for pasta is two ounces of dry - 75 calories, with about 14 grams of carbs. A healthy American, at or near the proper weight, probably can eat upwards of 200 grams of carbs per day, per the Dietary Guidelines issued by the federal government. Small plates of pasta fit into the guidelines, no problem.

Where the problem is is that "we usually eat two to three times more pasta than we should," said Natker. A typical box of pasta is 16 ounces - that's enough for eight servings. But in many households, a box of pasta feeds two, maximum four. That's where pasta eating jumps the shark.

The Barilla study itself flagged troubles associated with pasta. Wrote the researchers: "Both in women and men, the obese population was older and at lower socioeconomic status, had higher waist and hip circumferences and waist-to-hip ratio, and consumed more pasta (grams per day) than normal or overweight participants." We can split scientific hairs and say that the study is not claiming eating too much pasta causes obesity - but it sure shows what scientists call coincidence, that is, folks who eat a lot of pasta also seem to be more obese.

That acknowledgement is why Dr. Caroline Apovian, director of the Nutrition and Weight Management Center at the Boston Medical Center and also a professor at the Boston University School of Medicine, said, "The wording of the study is quite misleading. The study clearly shows the more pasta Italians ate, the higher the risk of obesity." Eat too much pasta, and you will be fat.

Remember, too, each of us processes foods differently. That is why one diet does not fit all.

As to how this applies to pasta, registered dietitian Cara Harbstreet said, "It's important to remember that foods are not easily placed in binary categories of 'good' or 'bad.' Pasta may be a nutritious choice in some cases, but for others, there may be no health benefit and may actually contribute to excess calories that lead to weight gain."

Pasta, maybe even small servings, is a bummer for some of us. That's a fact.

For the rest, however, here's the bottomline: you probably don't have to give up pasta, said multiple experts. But they also stressed three musts: be rigorous about portion control, be choosy about the types of pasta you eat, and also be mindful of how often you eat pasta. Do all that, and you likely can have your pasta and eat it too.

This article is commentary by an independent contributor. At the time of publication, the author held TK positions in the stocks mentioned.

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