The controversy around pasta… and other carbohydrates
World Pasta Day on 25th October gives us an opportunity to celebrate all things pasta; but in the last few years we have seen an increase in people dropping it from their diets. The low-carb diet has gained in popularity and there are people celebrating the benefits, while others caution us about changing our diets to avoid carbohydrates – so we asked our Company Nutritionist, Louise Goodall, to explain whether we should be keeping it on our plates.
Starchy carbohydrates, such as pasta, are an important source of nutrients in our diet. Put simply, they are long chains of sugar compounds which our bodies use as fuel.
Each gram of carbohydrate provides us with just under 4 calories, with fat and protein providing 9kcal/g and 4kcal/g respectively. Carbohydrates can provide us with many nutrients including fibre, B vitamins, iron, calcium and folate (a type of B vitamin).
Some people cut out or reduce the level of starchy carbohydrates in their diet, believing this to be a golden ticket to improved health and/or weight loss. It’s important to note that cutting out any food group from your diet can be risky business due to the potential of subsequent nutrient deficiencies.
Unhelpfully, there are varied opinions amongst health professionals and scientists as to whether reducing the level of carbohydrate in your diet is a good thing or not. There is also an abundance of anecdotal evidence from those describing how eating less carbohydrates helped them to achieve a healthy weight.
The government promotes the Eatwell Guide as a pictorial description of what a healthy balanced diet looks like. The guide shows that around a third of our total daily food intake should be from starchy carbohydrates. So, who’s right? It’s not a simple question to answer.
What we do know is that fibre, B vitamins, iron, calcium and folate are all beneficial to us and as mentioned above, are all found in starchy carbohydrates. Fibre is great for supporting normal bowel function and research shows that diets high in fibre can reduce your risk of bowel cancer. It is recommended that adults eat 30g of fibre a day but unfortunately many people aren’t reaching this recommendation.
When we look at the effects on weight loss, initially a low-carb diet will appear to be more effective than a low-fat diet. This is because our body will start to use up our glycogen (the stored form of glucose in our muscles). Glycogen is stored with water so as our levels of glycogen diminish, we also lose some ‘water weight’. However, in the longer-term, research shows that after around a year there is no difference in weight lost when comparing low-carb and low-fat diets.
For some people, low carb diets are simply not sustainable and can affect gut health and lead to constipation. How much carbohydrate we need is directly related to our energy output which will vary significantly from one person to another, meaning there is no ‘one size fits all’ approach.
Generally, it is a good idea to be aware of the portion sizes we are consuming and choose less refined, wholegrain varieties where possible. The British Dietetic Association (BDA) identify one portion of boiled pasta to be 2-3 tablespoons. Remember every individual is different and will therefore require different portion sizes.
So, this year, I’ll be celebrating World Pasta Day with a delicious, tuna pasta bake – one of my all-time favourites. I use homemade tomato sauce with wholegrain penne and pack it with veg like sweetcorn, onion and pepper.
- NHS (2018) How to Get More Fibre into Your Diet. Available at: https://www.nhs.uk/live-well/eat-well/how-to-get-more-fibre-into-your-diet/ (Accessed 23 October 2020).
- Saunt, R. and West, H., 2019. Is Butter A Carb? 1st ed. Great Britain: Piatkus, pp.49-68.
- BDA (n.d.) Carbohydrates. Available at: https://www.bda.uk.com/resource/carbohydrates.html (Accessed 23 October 2020).