Can you have your pasta and diet, too?
Remember when we were given license to eat as much fettuccine as
wanted, so long as we shunned the Alfredo sauce? It seems like
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
of the moment, pasta - along with its "white food"
rice and potatoes - stands accused of making America fat.
The "hot" diets of the moment - Atkins, Protein Power, the Zone,
Busters - all involve limiting the intake of carbohydrates, such
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
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
Before branding it Diet Enemy No. 1, consider that pasta has not
Italians particularly fat. "The issue is quantity," said Carol
director of food programs at New York University's Department of
and Food Studies and the author of "Carol Guber's Type 2 Diabetes
(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.
never meant to be eaten in gallon containers," said the chair of
NYU's department of nutrition and food studies and the author of
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
nutritional profiles, however, requires an understanding of how
carbohydrates behave in the body, and how fiber mitigates their
Once ingested, carbohydrates are broken down by insulin to produce
the body's main source of energy. Eating foods high in refined
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
body resistant to weight loss.
When nutritionists refer to "refined" carbohydrates, they mean
fibrous outer coverings have been removed. Although whole grains
fewer carbohydrates than their refined counterparts, the presence
makes them far more nutritious. Fiber, explained Nestle, is
carbohydrate that is not digested. As such, it slows down the
of other carbohydrates, normalizing blood sugar and possibly
components. Secondly, whole grains contain phytochemicals
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
carbohydrate grams to reflect their practical nutritional value.
calculation is why someone following the Weight Watchers diet plan
count more points for eating white bread than whole-wheat bread.)
"Regular" pasta, be it Mueller's elbows produced in Kansas City,
Barilla orecchiette from Parma, Italy, is made from durum
milled from very hard wheat. Two ounces of durum semolina pasta -
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
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.
stores haven't fully embraced it either, because many brands don't
other health-conscious standards such as being organic or
processed (apparently, it takes a lot of processing to turn
ziti). But the Internet is a fertile source of low-carb pastas,
offering wide selections of the major brands: Keto, ProSlim,
Pastalia and Darielle.
So, how do these pastas measure up? Their biggest drawback isn't
ranging from an unexpected tang to an even stranger non-taste -
which can be
mitigated by highly flavored sauces. The real problem, our testers
was texture. Pastalia fettuccine, at 10 carbs per 2-ounce serving,
rather tough, sort of midway between a noodle and a rubber band;
acceptable, but only barely.
Darielle elbows, on the other hand, were less elastic than
with a slightly grainy texture. Tossed with a flavorful sauce
other textural elements (for example, crumbled sausage or chopped
vegetables), they were pretty good. However, the Darielle package
"only 10 net carbs per serving" (italics ours), which means that
manufacturers have subtracted the fiber content (8 grams) from the
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
least discerning craving.
Some dieters have been turning to non-wheat pastas in the belief
are relatively low in carbohydrates, and, indeed, health-food
are packed with pasta made from rice, quinoa, spelt, buckwheat,
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
People who follow the Zone or Sugar Busters diets have more pasta
The Zone's key calculation is that the ratio of protein 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
150 grams of carbs. Sugar Busters shuns foods with high glycemic
for example, foods that cause a sizable leap in blood-sugar
from sugar, the Busters' main enemy is refined carbohydrates, and,
whole grains are allowed. So, for both the Zone and Sugar Busters,
portions of pasta made from whole grains are fine.
Of course, anyone interested in weight loss should consume even
nutrient-packed, fiber-rich pasta in moderation. "I recommend to
pasta become less of a staple in their diet," said Guber, who
if you're eating pasta five times a week, perhaps you could cut it
three. If 2 ounces seems a little light for a main course, 4
be the upper limit on all but very special occasions.
And there are strategies for fooling yourself into thinking you're
more pasta than you are. For instance, we found that bulky shapes
large shells and rigatoni take up more space in the bowl than
like small elbows or long pastas such as spaghetti and linguine.
broccoli florets, green beans and mushrooms, 4 ounces of shells
can be a substantial entree. It also helps to use small bowls.