Is pasta a recipe for weight gain?

Monday, November 20, 2006
Pasta is the type of food that some experts say we should be staying away from. The logic is that because it's a carbohydrate it's going to make us instantly fat. But is that really true? Should we be overlooking the carbs in favour of protein? Or have carbs just been misunderstood?

For the D'Angelo family from Matraville, in Sydney, cutting out the carbs would be sacrilege! As far as Salvatore's concerned, pasta's the food of the gods.

"I'm 76 now, 75 years I eat the pasta," he says.

Mama Rosa makes her own pasta several times a week. She believes she's doing the right thing by her family, but is Rosa right? Should pasta be a staple part of our diet? Or should we cut the carbs completely, as all those trendy diets tell us?

Related link: 30 Days of Health and Wellbeing calendar

Time to meet someone who's got some real answers.

At the University of Sydney, nutrition scientist Joanna McMillan-Price, put the whole carb thing to the test. She began by putting 129 people on four different diets.

"Two were high carbohydrate diets with a high and low GI respectively and then two we reduced the carbohydrate and upped the protein and again had high and low GI respectively," says Joanna.

Okay, stop right there — what does GI mean?

Joanna: "GI stands for glycemic index, which sounds immensely complicated and scientific, but all that means is glycemic is just glucose in the blood and glucose is the type of sugar that is the major fuel that courses through our blood, feeds our brain and the rest of the tissues in our body."

So this is the breakdown:

  • The glycemic index goes from 0 to 100.
  • Pure glucose has a GI of 100.
  • High GI foods have an index which is higher than 70.
  • Low GI foods have an index which is less than 55.

Here's what it means when you're choosing food in the shops: high GI foods tend to be more processed, like white bread and crumpets. Though even natural foods can be high — potatoes are a good example. Unprocessed grains and most fruit and vegetables are low GI.

Why does it matter whether a food is high or low on the index?

"We know from lots of research that if you have high GI foods as part of a meal you get hungrier quicker and you tend to eat more at the next meal. Whereas if you have low GI foods it gives you much more sustained energy, so if you have a low GI breakfast then it gives you much more sustained energy through the morning — you don't get those highs and lows, you don't have that midmorning slump where you feel like you need something to eat and you're less likely to eat so much at lunchtime. So, in fact, there's a carry over effect to the next meal," says Joanna.

But is low GI the way to go if you want to lose weight?

Joanna's four diets in the trial were:

  • High carbs, which were either high or low GI.
  • High protein, with either high or low GI carbs.

The winner was the high carbohydrate, low GI regime. Dieters lost just as much weight on the high protein diet, but the high carb plan proved better for the heart.

"High carbohydrate with low GI foods reduced blood cholesterol and, specifically, the type of bad cholesterol called LDL that we know is linked to heart disease," she says.

The high carb diet certainly worked for Deborah Mystakidis. Over the last two years she's lost 22 kilos.

So how hard was it for Deborah to stick to this diet?

"You know what? It was actually really easy. The funny thing was, I didn't feel like I was on a diet at all. It was actually really natural and really filling. I never was hungry."

So what are the key ingredients in Deborah's weight-loss success? Natural foods like oats and bran for cereal. Wholegrain bread, brown rice, fresh fruit and vegies — all these are low GI.

And there's more: "sweet potato — they're really good, oh and pasta," says Deborah.

Hang on a minute — pasta on a diet?

"So here's the good news — pasta does have a low glycemic index. And although this is made with white flour it might sound confusing, well how can this be low? It's the physical structure of pasta that actually takes a long time to break it down and absorb it," says Joanna.

  • So carbs are great for losing weight.
  • You still have to watch your portions.
  • Low GI does not mean low calorie.

So there's no need to pass on the pasta.

Well now you know. You're actually doing your body a service by eating pasta — so bring it on! But it's best to aim for pasta cooked with a tomato-based sauce and no creamy four-cheese toppings.

Fast facts

  • How good is your GI knowledge? Here we've got two kinds of rice — jasmine and basmati. They look the same but score very differently on the GI index. Do you know which is low GI and which one is high? The jasmine rice is very high — almost like eating pure sugar. But the basmati has more complex starches, which are hard to breakdown, making it low GI.

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