Such a simple question that deserves a much longer answer…Pasta has been a staple in so many of our diets. Simple, quick, cheap and tasty, it makes for a very easy dinner solution. You can have a wide variety of sauces and tastes through it, and in this economy it is a very good option. However, given the rising obesity rate all over the world, we need to stop and think whether this nightly staple is actually a good choice for us or not. Is it healthy? Well, you have to define healthy first. Anything in moderation is completely fine. I prefer to look at how much you actually need it, what you get from it, and what are potentially better options.
Nutritional Value Of Pasta
We will first take a look at the nutrition value of pasta. To keep it simple, I am going to look at simple white spaghetti, and simple whole grain spaghetti. There are simply too many variations to go through them all.
As you can see, per serving (1 cup, very small serving!!!), pasta is high in calories. Whole grain does have a much better profile in regards to dietary fiber, and is slightly lower in calories. It is also usually higher in magnesium than white pasta, another important vitamin.
Do You Really Need It?
You have to weigh up what you get out of it, opposed to the energy you are consuming. Pasta, as you can see above, is a food high in calories, especially for the nutrients you get out of it. This is good and bad, depending who you are. If you are part of a very small percentage of the population, who is a professional endurance athlete, trains twice a day or participates in a hugely ridiculous amount of exercise, then this is a great thing. Energy above and beyond is a must. You need energy to train, and not having enough can cause a wide variety of problems. In saying that, you can still get your calories from sources with more nutrients. For example, I train twice a day, but am involved in a power sport. I need more energy than the average person, but I still have to be careful. I don’t eat pasta, and get most of my carbs and energy from proteins, legumes and veggies… and a lot of them at that. On the other hand, a male long distance runner will burn an enormous amount of calories, and will simply need to top them up however he can get them, this is very important for sports recovery and will help to avoid overtraining in sport.
Now, back to a very large percentage of the population, who don’t exercise like a mad man and need to somewhat control out energy intake, then pasta is probably not the best choice. High in calorie, and low in nutrients, there are definitely other choices you can make. Be aware that you want to get bang for your buck, eat foods that will contribute to your body in a good way, most of the time. Veggies, legumes and fruits are all carbohydrate sources that provide a lot of vitamins and nutrients. I don’t necessarily advocate a low carbohydrate diet, if you read on I will explain more, however, to avoid weight gain, give your body what it needs, and help weight loss if necessary, then pasta is simply not a good choice 90% of the time. If you do eat it, ensure that it is directly after exercise, where your body will use it better. I will always argue it is better to stay away from processed grains most of the time, if not completely for the majority of the population, however, whole grain is so much better than white. If you are going to choose pasta, make sure it is whole grain.
Moderation Is The Key
Like anything else, moderation is a key. Pasta is OK at times for anyone. One cup is a standard serving of pasta, and if you think about it, when we eat pasta for dinner we are much more likely to have a huge bowl full. Anything in moderation is fine. If you want to lose weight and keep it off, you need to learn to eat a balanced diet. Ensure that the majority of your energy is providing you with nutrients and vitamins, and understand that most processed carbohydrates will not achieve that. As I mentioned before, I will always argue that you don’t really need processed grains at all. However, there are a lot of healthy people and athletes that eat a lot of them, and need them, without a doubt. I won’t ever go to one extreme, and there are always a few points of view. A healthy balanced diet is the key, and less processed grains is always going to contribute to you eating more vegetables… and you don’t have to be a nutritionist to know that is good. You don’t need to avoid pasta like the plague, but be smart about how much, the type of pasta and when you eat it.
Low Carb Diet The Way To Go?
After this you may think I am advocating a low carb diet. No. Traditionally when you look at a low carb diet, you are talking about zero carbs, all meat… basically a heap of protein and fat. I am telling you to have a safely balanced diet. There is no doubt that excess energy causes weight gain, and high GI and sugary foods speed that up. If you choose the right time to eat your carbohydrates (after exercise) and choose the right type (legumes, vegetables, fruits…basically no WHITE carbohydrates and preferably nothing processed) then you are making the right decisions. Carbohydrates provide energy, we need energy to live. A very low carb diet is not a good idea, and not one of the diets that work longterm but you need to get them from better sources. A dangerously low carb diet is only going to result in low energy and fatigue, definitely not what we want. For further information check out healthy fat loss.
If you need to eat pasta for whatever reason, go for the whole grain type. There is about 10 times more dietary fiber involved, and that is very important. It will also lower the GI (which is already quite low, a positive for pasta). For those that are trying to lose weight, avoid any type of processed carbohydrate, especially of the white variety, unless it is directly after exercise. Eat a whole lot of vegetables, fruits and legumes, and you will still get a LOT of carbs in, just ones that are also nutrient and vitamin dense, and give you something else for your energy.
So, in conclusion… of course pasta is not unhealthy, but I will argue that you have other, and better choices to make. Processed carbohydrates don’t give you a lot of nutrient value (in comparison with other foods), but are certainly necessary at time and for certain people. Just be smart, eat in moderation, concentrate on stocking up your plate with veggies and legumes, eat more lean proteins, and you really can’t go wrong…