Tuesday, August 31, 2010

How to Eat Pasta

Oh my gracious I love me some Italian food. Whenever I set foot in good Italian restaurants, the quarter of my genetic code that is Italian immediately bursts into operatic song while I scour the room for an accordion and Frank Sinatra. Being [partially] Italian gives me this inexplicable need to make my own pasta, attempt to toss pizza dough with my fists, and eat very large amounts of cheese. True story: my 4-year-old nephew likes to sneak the Parmesan cheese shaker out of the fridge and pop open the pour spout for a snack. I'm so proud. Being Italian also give me, what I would like to consider, a refined palette for Italian food.

The problem with Italian food is it can be unhealthy, but apparently only for Americans. America has a 30% obesity rate whereas Italy is 8%. Unfair? Extremely. I expect this is due to Americans having a myriad of other crap in our diets that Italians don't. That, and the fact that Americans don't really cook true Italian food. Not that I've ever been to Italy to truly experience this, but I'd like to think my genetics give me an inherent ability to sniff out the frauds. That and I've been to Little Italy. Does that count? 

It goes without saying that Italian food, with its sausages and oils and cheeses isn't standard fare for the healthy-minded individual. I came across this article that I think puts some reasonable ground rules down on how to indulge in pasta while still being sensible.

A Carb Lover's Guide: 3 Essntial Rules for Eating Pasta
posted on Eat Like Me 

We eat pasta about once or twice a week in our house. I love pasta for it's taste, it's quickness to cook and it's versatility in many different dishes. I often get asked why I don't eat whole grain pasta very often -- read on and I'll tell you why... The number one reason I don't eat whole grain pasta is because I prefer the taste of regular semolina and the second reason is because I don't have to. When I say "I don't have to" I am not singling myself (the dietitian) out. Let's talk about pasta - the good, the bad and the reason why you may not have to force yourself to eat whole grain if you don't want to.

THE GOOD: Pasta is a grain and grains are an important part of our everyday diet. Half of the grains you eat should be whole grains because whole grains add more fiber to the diet in addition to naturally occurring vitamins and minerals. Grains contribute carbohydrate to our diet and carbohydrate supplies our brain with energy throughout the day. If we don't eat carbohydrates we start to feel sluggish while at the same time our concentration and focus diminishes. For this reason it is important to meet your needs for grains each day. It is best to spread the grains out evenly over your three meals and it is especially helpful if your grains are whole grains because these digest more slowly and therefore release the carbohydrate over a longer period of time keeping you satiated and energized for longer.

THE BAD: Most people need about 6 ounce equivalents of grain each day - this is an amount that can easily be exceeded without proper portion control and it's especially easy when eating pasta. An ounce-equivalent of pasta is 1/2 cup cooked.  That is a TINY serving. If I had to guess I would say the average person takes about 2-3 cups of pasta when they serve themselves (4-6 ounce equivalents). If you order pasta at a restaurant you are likely being served around 4 cups which is 8 ounces equivalents. This is just one meal and you are already at or above your daily allowance for grains...uh oh. Not only are you eating a day's worth of grain in just one meal, you are also overloading your body with carbohydrate. Grains breakdown into simple sugars and that is how they provide energy, but too much sugar in your bloodstream at once is not good. Your body only needs a certain amount at one time and any excess has to be cleared (with insulin) and put into storage (adipose tissue aka fat). This happens when you eat a big pasta meal and it's not good because you have consumed several hundred calories yet you are going to feel hungry in a couple of hours because your body reacted strongly to this load you put in and worked to clear all the glucose away in order to keep your blood sugar levels in normal range.


     The first rule when eating pasta is...PORTION CONTROL!
     The second rule is...PAIR WITH PROTEIN.
     The third rule is...FORTIFY WITH FIBER.

The first rule should be of no surprise - you just read how easy it is to eat a day's worth of grain in one pasta dish so scale back the number of scoops you take. Start small (1-1.5 cups) and eat slowly. If you are still hungry (which you won't be if you follow rule #2 and rule #3), you can take another small portion (1/2 cup) 20 minutes later.

Pair your pasta with protein (meat or beans) and fortify it with fiber (vegetables) so that it becomes a more filling meal that digests more slowly. When the meal digests more slowly, you avoid the rapid rise in blood sugar and resulting overzealous insulin response. The meal will  break down over time leaving you feeling full and energized for several hours after you eat it. Protein can be chicken, beef or beans and fiber can be vegetables cooked into the dish or consumed as a salad on the side. Fiber can also come from whole grain pasta but you should not east more pasta to get more fiber...the portion control rule is still in effect. Since I pretty much always have the protein and vegetables as a part of my pasta dish, I have not taken to eating the whole grain pasta. The majority of my other grains are whole and so this is one thing I choose to go white on.

Pasta is not the enemy - it can be your good friend if you learn how to eat it right! 


ReL said...

That was very enlightening. Thanks for sharing it! Does this mean you've overcome your carbaphobia?

scott said...

When I was in Italy, I ate pasta everyday for two years and we definitely didn't follow the portion control rule in that article (1 500 g of pasta fed two people, generally). I think one reason the Italian diet is so healthy is the plethora of fresh i.e. non-processed food. We shopped several times a week, we used a half-sized refrigerator, and there were markets everywhere.

Angela said...

Good article. Even though pizza isn't all carbs, I bet this is good advice when eating it as well. We haven't had pasta in awhile. I think I'll make it this week with protein and veggies.

elpi said...

Most kids love to eat pasta that will lead them to obesity but thanks for this guide.

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