Monday 21 January 2019

Why groundbreaking research has put pasta back on the menu - dietitian Orla Walsh

We fell out of love with this Italian staple because of our suspicions that it was making us fat. But now a groundbreaking new study might finally be putting pasta back on the menu. Resident dietitian Orla Walsh takes a closer look

Pasta - back in favour
Pasta - back in favour

A victim of the 'low carb' movement, pasta has got its fair share of bad press over the years. We were advised to swap our plates of spaghetti in favour of spiralised courgette or butternut squash. But now it's about to make a triumphant return to our plate as a major new study has contradicted years of nutritional advice by revealing that pasta can actually help you lose weight. So is it time to pack away the spiraliser and return to the spag bol?

A meta-analysis of 30 studies by Canadian researchers found that three portions of pasta a week can help people drop more than one pound over four months. This research showed that pasta does not cause weight gain when it is consumed as part of a healthy diet. In fact, it may actually help achieve weight loss and the researchers suspect that this may be due to its low Glycaemic Index (GI).

So what is GI?

GI is a measure of how quickly or how slowly foods cause increases to blood sugar levels. Although often associated with the treatment of diabetes, research has found that low GI diets can help people get to and stay at a healthy weight. When blood sugar levels rise after eating high GI foods, the body must release more insulin. Insulin is a hormone that brings sugar from the blood into the cells where it is used as energy or stored as energy.

However insulin also helps a body to store fat and can actually switch off fat loss. Therefore, one of the aims of healthy eating is to control the amount of insulin that is being produced by the body by eating meals that do not release carbohydrates quickly into the blood system, but rather drip-feed it into the blood. If the carbohydrates are released slowly into the body, blood sugar levels stay lower thus helping to prevent fat gain and promote fat loss.

A low GI diet, or consuming meals with a low glycaemic load, will also help a person achieve optimal energy levels and sustain it across the day. Imagine how much work you could get done if your energy levels were great, and stayed that way. Most low GI or slow release carbohydrates are wholefoods - meaning that they grew out of the ground looking similar to how they appear on your plate. Pasta however doesn't grow on trees, obviously. It's created and therefore is considered processed. Unlike most other processed carbohydrates, pasta is a low GI carbohydrate. This is one of the reasons why pasta can belong in a healthy diet and a weight-loss diet.

So why did we avoid pasta?

People avoid pasta as it is perceived to be high in calories. A standard portion of pasta often contains 350 calories, while a humble spud may have just 150 calories. OK, but one thing to remember is that hardly anyone adds butter to their pasta, but the same can't be said about potatoes. Therefore how the carbohydrates are 'dressed' is an important factor to consider when being mindful of calorie intake. Secondly, the basic calorie difference between the two isn't pasta's fault, the blame lies with portion size. When we serve up potato, it takes up about a quarter of our plate. But when people eat pasta, the entire plate is covered. The plate model suggests that quarter of your plate should be carbohydrate, a quarter protein and half should be vegetables.

Therefore to make pasta fit into this healthy concept, a quarter should be the likes of spaghetti, a quarter the bolognese and half the meal should be a side salad or two portions of vegetables. A simple rebalancing that most people would do well to follow.

However, if you do enjoy a heftier portion of pasta, combining it with a lower calorie protein source is a simple solution to controlling the calorie content of your meal.

For example, instead of having minced beef, opt for turkey mince or prawns. Alternatively, adding some spiralised vegetables (see, you don't have to ditch it completely) like courgetti into your smaller pasta portion can give the illusion that you're eating more pasta than you are. That will boost the fibre and micronutrient content of your meal, as well as lower its overall GI.

What is fructan intolerant?

Some people avoid pasta for other reasons than simply watching their weight. Many avoid it because they feel it makes them bloat, and this could be because they are fructan intolerant. Fructans are a group of fermentable carbohydrates that are found in wheat as well as other foods such as onions, garlic and leeks. Most pastas are made from wheat. When the fructans in the wheat go into the large intestine, the 'good bacteria' that is naturally found in our gut eat it and in doing so release gas. This gas can build up and cause bloating. For some people this leads to pain or discomfort.

It's common for people with gut issues to self diagnose themselves with gluten intolerance. When this person cuts out gluten, their gut issues improve. Wheat, barley and rye contain gluten. However, they also contain the above mentioned fermentable carbohydrates. We know that intolerances to fermentable carbohydrates occur in at least three out of four people with an irritable bowel. Therefore it may not have been the protein called gluten within these foods causing them gut issues, but rather fructan.

The good news when it comes to intolerances is that you can often still eat a bit of the food, unlike allergies which rely on strict avoidance of the allergen. In the case of wheat-containing pasta, usually people who are intolerant to fructans have a threshold level - meaning they can eat a little but not a lot. Therefore again, this issue that gives pasta negative press may too be sorted by watching portion size. However, if you experience bloating with even small amounts of pasta, pasta made with rice or corn might be better.

All things considered, bearing in mind the issues we've raised and the new research, it might just be time to put pasta back on the menu.

Portion control

As most adults in Ireland are overweight, and a considerable chunk of us are either diabetic or pre-diabetic, it's best to be mindful of portion size. The food pyramid suggests we eat three to five servings of carbohydrate a day. To put this in perspective, think of the small plastic cups you get at a water cooler and picture one filled with cooked pasta. That is one serving. The guidelines suggest one or two servings at a meal. Would it be safe to presume the portion you eat is bigger than this?

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