The Truth About Pasta

Buena Vista Images via Getty ImagesOn the heels of the low-carb diet emerged the gluten-free fad. Pasta, which is generally made with wheat flour, was widely deemed “bad.” Now some are advocating that pasta is actually good for you, despite the widespread avoidance of it. So which is it?

Foods themselves are neither “good” nor “bad.” In the case of pasta, it’s the way — and amount — of pasta that is eaten that is generally not healthy. For example, in the United States, the portions of pasta consumed are much larger than those consumed in Italy. What Americans might think of as the size of a side dish or appetizer, Italians would consider an entire portion. Is a controlled portion of pasta bad? No. But heaping, extra-large portions of pasta is certainly not good.

The way pasta is prepared can help determine how healthful it is. Large bowls of pasta topped with heavy alfredo or another cream-based sauce is not uncommon in the United States. This type of sauce adds large amounts of fat and salt to the pasta dish. In Italy, pasta is more often prepared with vegetables or black beans — a combination that provides a substantial amount of folate as opposed to alfredo’s fat contribution.

Pasta, when prepared the right way, can be an excellent source of carbohydrate. Diets that eliminate carbohydrate (or fat) deprive the body of an essential macronutrient. The body needs to take in enough carbohydrate so that body proteins are not broken down to satisfy glucose or energy needs. However, excess dietary carbohydrate alters the body’s fuel preferences to burning more carbohydrates and less fatty acids. Thus dietary fat accumulates in body fat stores. To put it simply, carbohydrates are needed in moderation. So, while that family-sized helping of fettuccine alfredo might not be the best idea, it’s not the pasta that should be reconsidered — it’s what it’s paired with and the portion.

There are many people who need to follow a gluten-free diet for medical reasons, and there are many people who choose to follow a gluten-free diet because they believe that it is healthier. This is not necessarily the case. Being gluten-free doesn’t mean being pasta-free, or low-carb, or low-fat. There are plenty of gluten-free foods available such as bread, pasta, and cakes that contain just as much carbohydrate, fat, and sugar as their gluten-containing counterparts. Being gluten-free doesn’t automatically mean being healthy — though it can, depending on the approach.

If someone who has been known to eat a box of cookies in one sitting adopts a gluten-free diet and does not replace the consumption of gluten-containing cookies with gluten-free cookies, that person may indeed lose excess body fat. Reducing excess body fat reduces the risk of heart disease and diabetes. Is this person healthier because she is gluten-free? No — it’s because she stopped eating cookies.

Being healthy isn’t about demonizing and avoiding certain foods. The body likes balance. When more energy is consumed than is needed (i.e., when pasta is eaten in larger portions than necessary), the body is considered to have a positive energy balance, meaning the surplus energy (pasta) is stored as fat and glycogen (energy reserves). When less energy is consumed than needed, the body has a negative energy balance. The body uses glycogen and fat stores to provide energy, and body weight drops. Energy equilibrium is the goal: a balance of energy intake and expenditure. Controlling portion size, exercising, and choosing healthful food combinations are key to releasing foods like pasta from being labeled “bad” or “forbidden.” Despite its reputation, it is indeed possible to consume pasta while maintaining health. It’s how we choose to eat that pasta that is critical to balanced health.

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Originally published on The Huffington Post.