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Losing Your Noodle

 By Erica Marcus

Can you have your pasta and diet, too?

Remember when we were given license to eat as much fettuccine as we
wanted, so long as we shunned the Alfredo sauce? It seems like only yesterday
that pasta was considered the dieter's best friend and that fat in all its insidious forms was the real cause of obesity.

How far the pendulum has swung. Nowadays, with "low-carb" the dietary craze
of the moment, pasta - along with its "white food" co-conspirators, bread,
rice and potatoes - stands accused of making America fat.

The "hot" diets of the moment - Atkins, Protein Power, the Zone, Sugar
Busters - all involve limiting the intake of carbohydrates, such as pasta.
While differing significantly in both theory and practice, all four cast aside the "it's- only-the-number-of-fat-grams-that-count" approach, positing that sources of calories (i.e. carbs, protein and fat) and the relationships among the sources are also important.

And yet, many dieters who have "given up the toast" may find that abstaining
from pasta requires more self-control than they possess. The question is, in
these low-carb times, what role, if any, can pasta play in a weight-loss program?"

Before branding it Diet Enemy No. 1, consider that pasta has not made the
Italians particularly fat. "The issue is quantity," said Carol Guber, former
director of food programs at New York University's Department of Nutrition
and Food Studies and the author of "Carol Guber's Type 2 Diabetes Life Plan"
(Broadway, $25). "The last time I was in Italy, I lost weight and brought down my blood sugar. There, pasta is a course - you don't get a portion that will feed all of Rhode Island. But here, everything is supersized."

Nutritionist Marion Nestle concurred on the issue of quantity. "Pasta was
never meant to be eaten in gallon containers," said the chair of NYU's department of nutrition and food studies and the author of "Food Politics:
How the Food Industry Influences Nutrition and Health" (University of California Press, $29.95).

She also pointed out that most pasta eaten in America is made from refined wheat, which is far less nutritious than whole wheat. "It's always better to have whole grains," she said.

There are, in fact, a number of whole-grain pastas on the market, as well as
non-wheat pastas and so-called "low-carb pastas." Comparing their relative
nutritional profiles, however, requires an understanding of how carbohydrates behave in the body, and how fiber mitigates their effects.

Once ingested, carbohydrates are broken down by insulin to produce glucose,
the body's main source of energy. Eating foods high in refined carbohydrates
causes blood-sugar levels first to spike and then to dip precipitously, which is said to leave the diner tired, cranky and craving even more carbs.
This cycle, according to low-carbohydrate diet partisans, actually makes the
body resistant to weight loss.

When nutritionists refer to "refined" carbohydrates, they mean grains whose
fibrous outer coverings have been removed. Although whole grains contain no
fewer carbohydrates than their refined counterparts, the presence of fiber
makes them far more nutritious. Fiber, explained Nestle, is essentially a
carbohydrate that is not digested. As such, it slows down the digestion
of other carbohydrates, normalizing blood sugar and possibly absorbing toxic
components. Secondly, whole grains contain phytochemicals (vitamins and
minerals) that are lost when the bran and germ of the grain are discarded in the refining process.

Because of their benefits, fiber grams are sometimes subtracted from
carbohydrate grams to reflect their practical nutritional value. (This
calculation is why someone following the Weight Watchers diet plan has to
count more points for eating white bread than whole-wheat bread.)

"Regular" pasta, be it Mueller's elbows produced in Kansas City, Mo., or
Barilla orecchiette from Parma, Italy, is made from durum semolina, flour
milled from very hard wheat. Two ounces of durum semolina pasta - an eighth
of a 1-pound package - contain about 40 grams of carbohydrates. But if you divide a 1-pound box of pasta among four people, that's 80 grams of carbohydrates before you leave the starting gate.

Now, if you're in the "induction" phase of the Atkins plan (the one you go on initially), carbs are limited to 20 grams a day; eventually, you may be able to go as high as 40 grams. Thus, eating 1 ounce of pasta a day effectively blows the total daily carb allowance, and even this isn't feasible, since many of Atkins' "permitted" foods contain small amounts of carbs. With a daily carbohydrate allowance of 30 to 50 grams, Protein Power tells pretty much the same story.

The only option available to dieters who can't bear to give up pasta is so-
called "low-carb" pasta, 2 ounces of which typically contain 5 to 10 grams
of carbohydrates. This profile is achieved by using soy as the principal ingredient. Often wheat gluten - that is, the protein found in wheat flour - is added for texture.

Low-carb pasta may be hard to find on supermarket shelves. Health-food
stores haven't fully embraced it either, because many brands don't meet
other health-conscious standards such as being organic or minimally
processed (apparently, it takes a lot of processing to turn soybeans into
ziti). But the Internet is a fertile source of low-carb pastas, with
offering wide selections of the major brands: Keto, ProSlim, Pastalia and Darielle.

So, how do these pastas measure up? Their biggest drawback isn't taste -
ranging from an unexpected tang to an even stranger non-taste - which can be
mitigated by highly flavored sauces. The real problem, our testers found,
was texture. Pastalia fettuccine, at 10 carbs per 2-ounce serving, was
rather tough, sort of midway between a noodle and a rubber band; it was
acceptable, but only barely.

Darielle elbows, on the other hand, were less elastic than "regular" pasta,
with a slightly grainy texture. Tossed with a flavorful sauce containing
other textural elements (for example, crumbled sausage or chopped
vegetables), they were pretty good. However, the Darielle package claims
"only 10 net carbs per serving" (italics ours), which means that the
manufacturers have subtracted the fiber content (8 grams) from the total
carbohydrate content of 18 grams. (By this logic, the Pastalia would contain 7 "net" carbs.)

The lowest-carb pasta we tested, Keto, only had 5 grams per serving, but we
deemed it virtually inedible. These gummy morsels would hardly satisfy the
least discerning craving.

Some dieters have been turning to non-wheat pastas in the belief that they
are relatively low in carbohydrates, and, indeed, health-food store shelves
are packed with pasta made from rice, quinoa, spelt, buckwheat, potatoes and
all manner of flora. While these products are great for the wheat- intolerant, the vast majority of them have the same amount of carbohydrates as plain old durum semolina pasta, and most have no nutritional benefits beyond being wheat-free. Package labels should be read carefully. The main ingredient of DeBoles Jerusalem artichoke pasta is durum semolina, as is that of Eddie's organic soy spaghetti.

People who follow the Zone or Sugar Busters diets have more pasta options.
The Zone's key calculation is that the ratio of protein to carbohydrate to
fat should be 40:30:30. So, someone eating 2,000 calories a day can have 200
grams of carbs. A weight-loss regimen of 1,500 calories a day would yield
150 grams of carbs. Sugar Busters shuns foods with high glycemic indexes;
for example, foods that cause a sizable leap in blood-sugar levels. Aside
from sugar, the Busters' main enemy is refined carbohydrates, and, thus,
whole grains are allowed. So, for both the Zone and Sugar Busters, modest
portions of pasta made from whole grains are fine.

Of course, anyone interested in weight loss should consume even the most
nutrient-packed, fiber-rich pasta in moderation. "I recommend to people that
pasta become less of a staple in their diet," said Guber, who suggested that
if you're eating pasta five times a week, perhaps you could cut it down to
three. If 2 ounces seems a little light for a main course, 4 ounces should
be the upper limit on all but very special occasions.

And there are strategies for fooling yourself into thinking you're eating
more pasta than you are. For instance, we found that bulky shapes such as
large shells and rigatoni take up more space in the bowl than compact forms
like small elbows or long pastas such as spaghetti and linguine. Tossed with
broccoli florets, green beans and mushrooms, 4 ounces of shells can be a substantial entree. It also helps to use small bowls.




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