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Pasta Will Not Make You Fat—But There's a Catch

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Pasta is many dieters' number one enemy, but a new study from Italian researchers says the hate isn't necessary. In fact, people who eat pasta have a lower body-mass index and smaller waist-to-hip ratio. What this study doesn't do, however, is grant an all-access pass to the pasta buffet. Moderation and smart choices are key.

It's been kicked to the curb by overeager dieters, shamed by self-proclaimed nutritionists, and villainized by the carb-phobic crowd, but pasta is finally getting a moment of redemption. A new study published this week in the journal Nutrition and Diabetes reveals that pasta might not be the diet enemy so many believe it to be. In fact, pasta may help you lose weight, the study says.

"By analyzing anthropometric data of the participants and their eating habits," wrote George Pounis, the study's lead author, "we have seen that consumption of pasta, contrary to what many think, is not associated with an increase in body weight, rather the opposite."

Photo: Colin Clark

Researchers from Italy's Neuromed Institute of Pozzilli, including Pounis, examined two large studies that encompassed more than 23,000 people. They found that people who ate pasta have a lower body-mass index (BMI), waist and hip circumference, and waist-to-hip ratio.

Pasta is a fundamental part of the much-lauded Mediterranean diet, so it stands to reason pasta could be a part of the plan. The classic Italian diet is rich in heart-healthy fats from olive oil and fish, as well we fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and yes, pasta.

"In popular views," Licia Iacoviello, Head of the Laboratory of Molecular and Nutritional Epidemiology at Neuromed Institute, told ScienceDaily, "pasta is often considered not adequate when you want to lose weight. And some people completely ban it from their meals. In light of this research, we can say that this is not a correct attitude."

But don't be so fast to boil up a big plate of spaghetti tonight. It's unclear how these findings relate to Americans' diets. After all, the studies were conducted in Italy with a population that leans more heavily on the Mediterranean diet. By its very nature, their diet is different from that of the average American. In fact, researchers found that study participants who ate pasta also ate more tomatoes, tomato sauce, onions and garlic, olive oil, seasoned cheese and rice, all pillars of the Mediterranean diet. But the researchers noted that Italians' eating habits have been shifting in recent decades. They're leaving behind the traditional Mediterranean diet and adapting one more closely resembling today's American diet. That is, they're increasingly eating more red meat and sugar.

What This Study Means: Pasta, as part of a balanced diet, is reasonable. That, however, is not license to indulge in heaping plates of noodles, cheese, and meat. Panera Bread's Mac & Cheese has 980 calories, 61 grams of fat (they don't list saturated fat), and almost an entire day's worth of sodium with 2030 milligrams. Romano's Macaroni Grill's classic Fettucine Alfredo has 1,040 calories, 36 grams of saturated fat, and 1,630 milligrams sodium. When you're dining out, look for pasta options that are lightly dressed with extra-virgin olive oil or sauces like pesto. If you're craving a forkful of cheesy goodness, ask for a half order and get a lightly-dressed salad on the side.

At home, keep your portions in check by measuring your pasta before cooking. The study recommended people eat no more than 10 percent of their daily calories from pasta. That's about 200 calories or a modest one cup of pasta. Here, portion control is everything.

Also, make a better pasta choice when you're shopping. Dump the white pasta, and choose whole-grain options instead. They're better and tastier than ever. Plus, in just one serving of whole-grain pasta, you can meet your daily whole-grain needs (plus a few extra). Use our Healthy Store-Bought Whole-Grain Pasta Guide to get started.