Bring pasta back to your plate

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Are you a pasta lover? I certainly am. I also feel compelled to defend this wonderful food- one that’s so often unfairly maligned. I cannot tell you how often a client, providing a list of favourite foods, confesses to me that they occasionally eat pasta for dinner.

Confesses – I choose that word because of the guilt they express when talking about making a pasta meal.  Guilt is the last sentiment you should be feeling when preparing and enjoying  pasta.

It’s definitely time to set the record straight: pasta, done right, is a smart, nutrition packed choice – a meal that can be fast food at its best.

According to the  Scientific Consensus Conference on the Healthy Pasta Meal, which took place recently in Milan, Italy and whose organizers included the non-profit Oldways and the International Pasta Organisation,  pasta should be characterized as a healthy complex carbohydrate-containing food suitable to most diets.

All too often, pasta is included among those foods such as white bread, bagels, cookies and other baked goods on the list of  quickly-digested carbohydrate foods to avoid. Properly cooked pasta, even those made from white flour, has a low glycemic index (GI), meaning that the carbohydrate enters the blood stream at a slow pace. High GI foods can lead to  rollercoaster of blood sugar effects that can result in constant hunger and weight gain.

So why does white pasta fit into the low GI category and differ from the high GI white bread? While whole wheat pasta offers more fibre and phytochemicals, disease-fighting compounds from plant foods like antioxidants, white pasta made from durum wheat that is more granular than white flour and therefore yields a significantly  lower GI.  But only when it’s cooked al dente, which literally means to the tooth. Overcooked pasta is another story as GI counts rise with overcooking.

Pasta is also an excellent nutrient delivery system when it’s used in traditional healthy eating patterns such the Mediterranean Diet.  It’s a super way of  combining and therefore,  boosting the disease-fighting capabilities of each food in quick-to- prepare dishes. Sauté broccoli with garlic and olive oil, add some diced canned or fresh tomatoes and then toss it with the pasta and freshly grated Parmesan cheese and the combination of disease-fighting compounds yields greater results than when each is consumed on its own.

I say delivery system as it’s a tasty way to increase various nutrient-rich components of a meal such as vegetables or pulses such as kidney beans and chick peas. The traditional pasta and beans offers, along with an assortment of nutrients, soluble fibre which lowers blood cholesterol readings and aids in blood sugar regulation.

Go for a variety of combos – for example,  roasted mushrooms, garlic and sun-dried tomatoes or chick peas, tuna, onions and garlic or sautéed zucchini, pepper strips and onions. In fact, check your vegetable drawer to see which vegetables should be used up as soon as possible and cook – roast or saute –  them for a pasta dish.

I also like to toss in  greens such as spinach or arugula just as I am mixing together the pasta topping and the pasta so it’s just wilted, not cooked.

Tomato sauce  is a rich source of the pigment or carotenoid lycopene which offers protection against a number of ills including prostate cancer and artery disease. Add a splash of antioxidant-rich extra virgin olive oil and even more lycopene is absorbed.

But there is one stipulation – serving size.  Portion distortion – as when restaurants serve single portions of pasta  large enough to feed a family of four in Italy – continues to give carbs a bad name.   About two to three ounces of pasta before cooking supplies a wonderful foundation for a host of goodies.

At the conference,  the issue of sustainability was also on the menu. “Today, consumers are confronted with not just nutritional choices when it comes to food, but those that impact the environment and culture,” said Sara Baer-Sinnott, the president of  Oldways.

The conference  drew attention to pasta, a simple plant-based food made most often of just two ingredients — durum wheat and water —   has a low environmental impact. In the Consensus Statement, scientists recognized the importance of addressing sustainability, a topic too frequently not considered when evaluating food recommendations. But it’s an issue that should not be ignored.

Click here to read the entire Consensus Statement and the names of the scientists who participated in putting it  together.

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Categories: Nutrition News, Tips and Tricks

Author:Rosie Schwartz

Rosie Schwartz is a Toronto-based consulting dietitian and writer.

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