Why Pasta Isn't Your Enemy

There's a rumor going around, and it's one that's rooted in years of fad diets and conflicting information. If you've worked to eat healthy, dieted in any way or had access to the internet you've probably heard it—pasta is your waistline's enemy. Many diets even play into this idea—encouraging participants to eliminate not just pasta, but all grains from his or her meal plan.

But guess what? If you love pasta, you don't have to give it up. In fact, you may find that pasta is actually a great addition to your weight loss or overall wellness plan. This may seem odd given the negative reputation grain-based foods have taken on over the years, from the low-carb craze spurred by the popularity of the Atkins diet to the current Paleo and Whole30 craze. Take a quick look around online and it won't take you long to discover the controversy surrounding these sorts of foods. Critics argue that they are overly processed, stripped of their nutrients, that they aren't what our ancestors ate and they must play a role in the obesity epidemic.

Over the years, pasta has been vilified for a variety of reasons, sure, but the truth is that flaws can be found in all foods we eat—even those foods that seem "super" aren't perfect. Unfortunately, when we try to classify foods into "good" and "bad" categories, we find ourselves not only missing out on potentially beneficial food options, but we tend to also miss the point completely on why we eat and how our foods work together.

Although there are many reasons why people may eliminate pasta from their meal plan, registered dietitians often hear the same concerns from clients time after time. It often boils down to its role in weight management, its supposed lack of nutrients and the seemingly poor value it offers your meal plan. Of the myriad of health-based reasons people think they're wary of pasta, four stand out among the others.

1. Pasta is fattening.

Believe it or not, pasta is not fattening on its own. In fact, no individual serving of any food is going to be solely responsible for weight gain to occur. Instead, eating beyond your calorie needs consistently, no matter they type of foods you eat, is a much more accurate point of view when it comes to placing the blame. Many diets do focus on limiting carbohydrate-based foods because they provide calories to your meal plan and in the typical American diet it can be easy to overeat foods from this category. Keep in mind that a healthy diet still comes down to overall intake, not just your grain-based foods or carbohydrates.

2. Pasta doesn't provide any nutritional value.

Another reason people use to justify giving up pasta is its perceived lack of nutritional value. Except that is not true. Pasta, especially whole grain varieties, offer up all sorts of nutrients your body needs. From B vitamins to dietary fiber, pasta can add value to your plate. In fact, incorporating whole grains into your meal plan can promote better weight maintenance and support good digestive health. Whole grains have also been associated with a lower risk of type 2 diabetes, stroke and heart disease.  Enriched pasta, on the flipside, is also often fortified with B vitamins and folate.

For those worried about gluten or phytates in relation to pasta consumption, unless you have a gluten intolerance or allergy it isn't necessary to stay away from pastas that contain gluten, though there are gluten-free pastas available on the market. Phytates—antioxidant compounds found in whole grains, legumes, nuts and seeds—have also raise alarm for many due to their tendency to bind to certain minerals you eat thus making them less likely to be absorbed by your body. Although it is often claimed that this eliminates any nutritive value you might gain from eating foods with phytates, in truth, you will still get more benefit incorporating these foods than by eliminating them entirely.

It's also important to note that there are many different varieties of pastas available on the market, outside of traditional enriched or whole grain. Pastas made from chickpeas, quinoa or lentils are just a few options that might be a good fit for your personal meal plan. While they may have different nutritional profiles, keep in mind that good nutrition is more than just the nutrients. Consider how that food supports the rest of your meal and adds enjoyment before landing on total pasta elimination. 

3. Pasta isn't filling.

For many individuals, pasta doesn't seem filling enough in the recommended small amounts. In most instances, this is because pasta has become the main focal point of the meal, rather than a base upon which to build. Your pasta serving doesn't need to dominate your plate, and if it does, you may find that you are missing out on an opportunity to fully maximize your meals' potential. Fruits, vegetables, fish, beans, cheese and olive oil are just a few foods to consider adding to your plate or pasta dish for a fuller, more satisfying pasta experience.   

Interestingly, serving up pasta with these types of foods may additionally help you achieve or maintain a healthy weight. A recent Italian study that observed the eating habits of more than 22,000 Italian adults concluded that pasta, when incorporated into a Mediterranean-style eating plan, was associated with a lower prevalence of obesity and overweight status.

Providing, on average, just under 200 calories per cooked cup, you might be surprised at how filling traditional pasta can be when served with other nutrient-rich foods and without excessive heavy sauces. Try experimenting with adding a variety of steamed vegetables, olive oil or beans to get a better idea of what combinations leave you feeling satisfied.

4. Pasta is too enjoyable.

When it comes to creating a healthy relationship with food, it's essential to incorporate foods you love into your meals. Unfortunately, many people give up their favorite foods thinking that if they like them too much, well, then they must be bad. Sometimes this is because of a perceived issue with self-control and sometimes there are more psychological issues at play. Luckily, as you can see, it is possible to incorporate foods like pasta into a balanced meal plan. By taking away the guilt and shame surrounding this "forbidden" food, you may also find more balance and enjoyment when eating, too.

Just because you've had it burned into your brain over the years that pasta is your adversary in the journey to weight loss doesn't mean you have to buy into the belief. As with many foods, moderation is key, meaning when properly portioned and combined with other healthy vegetables and additions, pasta can easily fit into whatever meal plan you're working with to either lose weight or maintain a healthy weight. While common sense still reigns and you'll want to avoid consuming an entire pan of creamy fettuccine alfredo every night, don't let any of the above reasons prevent you from incorporating pasta into your diet in a way that supports your energy and nutrient needs.