What America Gets Wrong with Pasta

A love for pasta is an attribute we, as Americans, share with Mediterranean cultures. However, the way in which Americans enjoy pasta marks a huge difference between the typical Western diet and the much praised Mediterranean diet. There are many reasons (and tons of research to back up) why we should aim to imitate the Mediterranean style of eating, but let’s start by looking at one of life’s greatest pleasures, the experience of eating pasta.

Moderation, moderation, moderation

When we go out to eat in the United States and order pasta, we are often served a plate or giant bowl overflowing with pasta…and cheese. This super-sized portion mindset is usually translated to our home kitchens as well. In contrast, the typical Italian serving of pasta is somewhere close to 3.5 oz or 1 cup of cooked pasta. When being served as an appetizer, a 2 oz serving of pasta is typical.

Foods containing gluten, like pasta, have been demonized as the cause of weight gain as well as a whole host of health issues when in fact, recent research has shown that eating gluten may actually decrease your risk for Type 2 diabetes (more on that below). However, when served the Mediterranean way, pasta can be part of a healthy diet. I love the brand De Cecco because it is a very minimally processed pasta available in most American grocery stores.

Want some pasta with that cheese?

Another stark difference has little to do with the pasta itself and everything to do with what’s served on top of or with the pasta. In Italy, a typical pasta sauce is very simply made with tomatoes, olive oil and garlic. Fresh vegetables are often added, and the pasta is often topped with fresh parmesan for added flavor.

In the United States, pasta meals are typically centered around a highly processed pasta sauce, which often includes sugar, and a ton of cheese. What’s missing from this pasta plate? Real, whole vegetables containing fiber. Fiber slows down digestion, interferes with the absorption of fats and sugar, helps keep blood sugar stable, feeds the friendly bacteria in our gut, helps you feel full longer and keeps things regular. Fiber: 1; Mac & Cheese: 0. 

Are legume-based pastas the answer?

When ‘gluten-free’ became a buzz word, many rice and corn based pastas hit the market. Unfortunately, these pastas have been linked to diabetes and pre-diabetes because of their high carbohydrate content and low fiber content. For those unable to eat gluten or gluten eaters who want to switch things up on occasion, legume-based pastas are a great alternative to the rice and corn based pastas on the market.

Pastas made from black beans, lentils and chickpeas have resistant starch, which is not digested in the stomach or small intestine but is used for fuel by the bacteria in the colon. This unique starch component along with the relatively high fiber and protein content of beans makes legume-based pasta effective at lowering spikes in blood sugar, keeping our digestion regular and promoting satiety.

The Bottom Line

Quality and quantity are two important things to keep in mind when enjoying pasta. Next time you are ordering pasta in a restaurant or cooking pasta at home, remember to do as the Italians do and keep portions in check, incorporate veggies, and select high-quality, minimally-processed pasta.