Spaghetti is probably not the first food that comes to mind when you think about healthy nutrient-rich meals. Forget everything you once thought about pasta, for dietitian Melissa Meier is here to tell you why you should be eating the delectable carb in your regular diet.
Nothing beats digging into a delicious bowl of spaghetti – but for a lot of people, doing so is associated with ultra-indulgence, and sometimes even a little guilt.
Packed with carbs, spaghetti (or any type of pasta, for that matter) has earned a reputation in diet circles as a ‘no go’ food. But what if I told you, with my dietitian hat on, that these fad diets have it all wrong? Yep, long live carbs!
Carbohydrates are one of three macronutrients that provide your body with energy (the other two are protein and fat). The energy that comes from carbs (i.e. glucose) is the type of energy your body (and especially your brain) is wired to use most efficiently – it doesn’t like using energy from fat, and it certainly doesn’t want to use energy from protein. Without enough carbs in your diet, you’ll feel flat and lethargic, partly because your blood sugars will be pretty low.
You might be surprised to learn that gram for gram, carbohydrates contain exactly the same amount of energy as protein (i.e. 17 kilojoules/four calories), so they’re not innately fattening. The reason that low carb diets tend to work for weight loss in the short term is that carbohydrates are stored in your body with water.
So, when you deplete your carb stores and don’t replace them, you lose the weight of the stored carbohydrates as well as the weight of the stored water. Overtime, any diet that provides a sustained energy deficit (whether low carb or otherwise) will result in weight loss, but that doesn’t mean it’s necessarily good for you – or that it’s even nutritionally adequate.
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Contrary to popular opinion, some carbohydrate-rich foods offer an abundance of good nutrition. Obviously, takeaway pizza and deep fried chicken aren’t in that basket, but that’s more to do with the excessive amounts of sodium and saturated fat these foods tend to provide, rather than the carbohydrates themselves.
Healthier carbohydrates (yes, they do exist!) are found in humble, everyday staple foods like whole grain bread, sweet potato and you guessed it… pasta. Particularly if they’re wholegrain and/or low-GI, I’d class some carb-rich foods as some of the healthiest things you can put on your plate.
How to make a healthier pasta meal
Hopefully by now, you can see that I’m certainly pro-pasta. Yes, it can be very good for you and yes, you can eat it every single week. Multiple times if you like. For real. That’s not the green light to dive into mountains upon mountains of creamy deliciousness on the reg, however.
There are some ground rules I’d suggest following to keep your pasta dish on the better-for-you end of the spectrum:
1. Opt for wholemeal pasta over white pasta. It’s higher in fibre and offers far more essential micronutrients than the regular variety.
2. Keep your serving of pasta to just one cup cooked. This counts as two serves of grains (FYI, if you’re a female aged between 19-50, you’re recommended to have six serves of grains a day).
3. Pair your pasta with a homemade, tomato-based, veggie-packed sauce. That way, you’ll be able to keep it on the lighter side in terms of salt and saturated fat while ramping up the veggie content.
4. Serve it with a side salad to help to balance out the meal. In case you’re wondering, at least 50 per cent of every meal you eat should consist of non-starchy veg.
5. Enjoy it, guilt free. Sink your teeth into it, relish in the flavours and take your time to eat it, rather than shovelling food into your mouth like there’s no tomorrow.
In a healthy diet, there’s no room for food guilt – so forget everything you’ve ever thought about pasta and rest assured, it can actually be very good for you.
Melissa Meier is a Sydney-based accredited practising dietitian. You can connect with her on Instagram @honest_nutrition.