Passion for pasta

With the recent hype surrounding Atkins, South Beach and numerous other low-carbohydrate diets, one wonders if eating no breads, pastas or sugar is really the answer to losing weight. The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Dietary Guidelines recommend eating six to 11 daily servings of grain-based products that are high in complex carbohydrates – foods such as pasta, breads and cereals – as the foundation of a healthy diet.

Medical professionals side with the government.

“The message of no carbs has run out of control. It’s really deleterious,” said Dr. Amy Lanou, nutrition director for the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine. “What people need to do is make the difference between good and bad carbohydrates.”

One of these good carbohydrates, pasta, has always been a top nutritional player in healthy eating. Not only is it inexpensive, filling and easy to make, but it also has longevity – pasta has been served for thousands of years. It originated in Asia and the Mediterranean, thanks to the travels of Marco Polo and other early explorers. The word “pasta” is Italian for “paste;” all pasta is made from a dough of grain flour, usually wheat, mixed with water.

Pasta is a low-fat, high-carbohydrate food, with 80 percent of the calories in pasta coming in the form of complex carbohydrates, which help provide energy to the body. But instead of giving a quick burst of energy such as sugar, complex carbohydrates provide a “time release” of energy.

“Carbohydrates are the preferred energy for muscles,” Dr. Lanou said.

This food also provides many nutrients to the body, such as folic acid, iron, riboflavin, thiamine and niacin. Since Jan. 1, 1998, new Food and Drug Administration rules have required food manufacturers to fortify grain-based foods such as pasta with folic acid, which plays an important role in the body’s central nervous system. Under these new rules, a two-ounce serving of dry pasta will supply 25 percent of the recommended daily intake.

The nutritional quality of pasta, and often its taste and texture, depends upon the flour. Those made with whole-grain flours, such as whole-wheat pasta, are naturally the most nutrient-rich because the bran and germ of the grain have been left in. Most whole-wheat pasta is made with durum wheat, which is high in protein and gluten. But most boxes of pasta found on the supermarket shelf are made with semolina or farina or a combination of the two. In these particular flours, the germ and bran have been removed, therefore making the fiber and nutritional values lower.

The myth that pasta is fattening is false. Pasta is low in fat because grains are low in fat. It is what a person puts on the pasta and the amount a person eats that makes it fattening. The calories and much of the nutritional quality of pasta dishes depend, for better or worse, on the sauce. People watching their weight should not cut out pasta completely but should choose sauces wisely. Pasta can be a nutritious meal if one skips high-fat sauces such as Alfredo that contain cream, oil and heavy cheeses.

The next time you’re strolling through the pasta aisle at Safeway, pause to choose a box and look for words such as “whole wheat,” “multigrain” or “vegetable-flavored noodles,” all of which contain a higher amount of nutrients and vitamins per serving than regular dried pasta. In the kitchen, just remember that a half-cup of cooked noodles is one serving. Go heavy on the vegetables and use sauces and cheeses sparingly.

Weight gain cannot be blamed on any single food or food group; eating too much of any food can cause weight gain. Remember that a gram of fat has nine calories, which is more than twice the calories of a gram of carbohydrates. No matter how boring it may sound, the key is to eat all foods in moderate portions, in the context of an overall healthy diet coupled with regular exercise.

-Liz Bartolomeo contributed to this report

Ideas for the kitchen

* Try a no-cook sauce by marinating tomatoes, fresh mozzarella and fresh basil leaves in a little oil. Toss with hot pasta for a quick, delicious meal.

* For a nutrient-packed meal, top pasta with chopped or mixed vegetables and a favorite bottled sauce.

* Pairing pasta with legumes, such as beans and lentils, or low-fat dairy products makes for protein-rich but inexpensive and delicious meatless meals.

* Prepare a main-dish pasta salad following the food guide pyramid. Start with cooked pasta, add vegetables, top with a small portion of meat or cheese, and use only a small amount of salad dressing.

* Use only a small amount of olive oil, margarine or vegetable cooking spray when preparing pasta dishes.

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