Susie Burrell

‘your food, your body, your life’

How to eat pasta and not gain weight

In Italy they eat it daily yet here in Australia it is closely associated with weight gain with many a diet banning it completely. So what is the go with pasta? Is it really that bad for us? Can one single food cause weight gain? Are some kinds of pasta better than others? And if you do love your pasta is there any way you can enjoy it and not gain weight? Everything you need to know is right here.

Pasta which includes fettuccine, spaghetti, penne, tagliatelle, rigatoni, macaroni and linguine among other varieties is a carbohydrate rich food made from the dough of wheat combined with water or eggs and moulded into sheets or shapes before being cooked. In its basic form, pasta is relatively uncomplicated nutritionally. It consists primarily of carbohydrates and some protein coming from its wheat base. A single cup of uncooked pasta contains 85g of total carbohydrate and up to 14g of protein and little else.

Despite its relative simplicity, pasta gets a bad rap nutritionally for a number of reasons – its high carbohydrate nature means that it is an energy dense food. In fact a couple of cups of cooked pasta contains almost the entire amount of carbohydrate a sedentary person requires for an entire day. So while this makes pasta a fabulous fuel source for elite level athletes, for the rest of us it becomes a food we can easily overconsume. Next it is about what we eat with the pasta because we do not eat it by itself. Rather in most cases our favourite pasta comes lathered in high calorie, high fat sauces including carbonara, boscaiola and pesto which can contain as much as 60-80g of fat in a single serve. It is the mix of carbs and fat that links pasta to weight gain. Finally and perhaps most importantly the issue with pasta, particularly in Western countries is the enormous serving sizes. Unlike the entrée sized portions served in Italy along with plain tomato or olive oil sauces, we tend to serve jumbo sized plates of pasta along with rich, heavy sauces. As you can see, it is not the pasta that is the problem. It is the way we eat it.

There are also plenty of alternatives to pasta available in supermarkets just to confuse you further. The question is are they any better? Starting with wholemeal pasta, a serve of wholemeal pasta contains slightly less carbohydrate than regular pasta along with a massive 16 plus grams of fibre per serve compared to almost no fibre in regular wheat pasta. This means that wholemeal varieties are likely to be much more filling which means you are also likely to eat a whole lot less of it, if you can stomach it.

Then there is the new pulse pasta. Made from a range of different legumes including chic peas, lentils and peas, pulse pasta is higher in fibre than regular pasta and as such slightly lower in carbohydrates. It is again likely to be more filling than regular pasta if you can tolerate it as a number of people find difficulty digesting the fibres found in legumes.

Another relatively new type of pasta on the market are lower carb, high protein varieties of pasta that contain higher amounts of gluten and fibre in the pasta which increases the fibre and protein and reduces the overall amount of carbohydrate per serve. Unlike regular pasta these varieties tend to be much heavier, meaning you do not need as much to feel satisfied.

You can also find a wide range of pasta made from a variety of different grains including buckwheat, rice and spelt as well as gluten free options. While alternatives to traditional wheat based pasta may suit individuals food preferences and dietary intolerances, nutritionally they have similar amounts of carbohydrate overall, meaning it will make little to no difference which type of pasta you choose when it comes to overall calorie intake and weight control.

In recent years you may have also noticed a shift towards low carbohydrate alternatives to pasta including spiralised vegetables like zucchini and pumpkin now available to major supermarkets and konjac spaghetti. Made from an Asian root vegetable, konjac, these extremely low carb options contains as little as 2-5g of carbohydrates per serve and although they are much lighter than pasta can substitute in mixed dishes such as spaghetti bolognaise quite nicely for minimal carbs and calories.

There is not one food that will make you fat. When it comes to having your pasta and being able to enjoy it without worry of weight gain it really comes down to the way you eat it. A serve of cooked pasta is just a cup (think entrée size), not the 3-4 cups we are often served and ideally we need to skip the heavy sauces in favour of lighter options such as seafood and vegetables with a little olive oil. Like any one food, consuming it occasionally, once or twice a week will pose no issue, especially if you are active. On the other hand, if your goal is weight loss or you want to eat pasta more frequently it may be worth trying the low carb options to see if you can incorporate them with your favourite pasta sauces for minimal calories.