Can pasta really be an effective weight-loss food?

July 07 2016

If you were compiling a list of the best weight-loss foods to add to your diet, you’d be forgiven for omitting pasta.

We’re forever being told that in order to shed pounds, we need to be cutting right back on complex carbohydrates. However, a new study from Italy (where else!) has suggested that pasta is not fattening and could actually help to reduce the likelihood of obesity.

Much to the delight of spaghetti lovers everywhere, the Neuromed Institute research - published in the Nutrition & Diabetes Journal - concluded that as part of a healthy, balanced diet (this is a crucial detail) we can enjoy pasta without fearing for our waistlines.

More than 23,000 people took part in a pasta-focused study in Italy

George Pounis, who co-authored the report, commented: “We have seen that consumption of pasta, contrary to what many think, is not associated with an increase in body weight, rather the opposite.

"Our data show that enjoying pasta according to individuals' needs contributes to a healthy body mass index, lower waist circumference and better waist-hip ratio.”


What makes pasta healthy?

Pasta is a low-GI food

While the aforementioned research shouldn’t be held as gospel, it underlines the point that you don’t need to remove pasta from your diet if you’re looking to lose weight.

Here are a few of the benefits of eating pasta:

• It provides glucose, which fuels your muscles and brain.

• Pasta provides a slow release of energy, whereas sugary foods, for example, give you a quick fix and a more dramatic crash.

According to the US National Pasta Association, enriched versions of the food can be a great source of folic acid, which is particularly important for pregnant women.

Pasta has a low GI (30 to 60), although this increases the more it is cooked. There’s a top tip! A low GI means you digest the food more slowly, so you feel full for longer, thus reducing the need to get more calories on board (in theory).

As this study published in the New England Journal of Medicine shows, it’s calories that result in weight gain, regardless of whether they’ve come from carbs, proteins or fats. Granted, this isn’t strictly a benefit, but it further dispels the myth that carbs are evil.


How much pasta are you recommended to eat?

At risk of being accused of stating the obvious; if you eat lots and lots of pasta and little else - especially the heavily-processed stuff - there’s a good chance you will put on weight.

The Neuromed Institute study clearly stated that pasta can be an effective weight-loss food IF eaten in moderation and as part of a healthy Mediterranean diet.

Speaking to the Daily Mail, Dr Aseem Malhotra, advisor to the National Obesity Forum, said that the people who took part in the study ate around 50g to 60g of pasta a day, which is a lot less than you’d expect to find in a main meal.

That said, NHS Choices suggests that starchy foods - which includes pasta - should make up just over one-third of your daily food intake.

Fitness First Clubs personal trainer and expert nutritionist, Carly Tierney, told us:

“You should make sure you eat some carbs for every meal, so pasta is awesome for lunch or dinner. Carbs like pasta are also great to eat pre-workout as they provide your body with fuel which helps you to push during training.”


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Why is wholegrain pasta so popular?

The UK consumes 2.5kg of pasta per capita - by comparison Italy consumes 25.3kg per capita and the US 8.8kg per capita - so it’s already an important part of many of our diets.

Again, it’s worth stressing that not all forms of pasta are the same.

Carly added that when buying pasta (as with any food) you should “focus on quality”.

“The best varieties of pasta contain high amounts of protein and fibre. Check the labels and steer clear of varieties that have added ingredients. Also don't be fooled by seemingly healthy varieties of spinach and tomato pastas. They often contain very little actual veg - certainly not enough to meet one of your recommended five-a-day - and are often white pasta with food dye in to give them a vibrant colour,” she commented.

As we’ve already touched on, expert nutritionists will tend to steer you towards wholegrain pasta, rather than standard white versions.

According to SELF Nutrition Data, 100g of cooked wholewheat spaghetti contains 124 calories, 27g of carbohydrate and 5g of protein.

By contrast, the same source tells us that 100g of standard white spaghetti contains 158 calories, 31g of carbohydrate and 6g of protein.

As you can see, the lower calorie count works in the favour of brown pasta and it’s also worth noting that wholegrain pastas offer more than twice as much dietary fibre than white variations.


What are healthy alternatives to pasta?

Maybe you don’t even like pasta at all (at which point we’d question how you’ve got so far through this article). Not to worry, Carly has some handy alternatives for you.

Rice pasta made with brown rice

“This is a good option for those following a gluten-free diet or for those who have a sensitive stomach. Rice versions tend to be easier to digest.”

Quinoa pasta

“This is also great for those who are gluten-free. It has a nutty taste and texture and is jam packed with nutrients.”

Bean pasta

“This is made using beans, lentils or chickpeas. This pasta will keep you feeling full for longer and actually tastes really good and not at all ‘beany’ as you may expect.”


Easy & healthy pasta recipes you should try

The best thing about all of these positive pasta vibes is that it’s a fantastically convenient and versatile ingredient to cook with.
But be careful!

As Carly rightly suggests, many people let themselves down by pairing their pasta with high-fat, sugary sauces.

“Home-made tomato sauces can be tasty alternatives to carbonara and cheese sauces and you can replace full-fat cheese with low-fat feta or mozzarella,” she remarked.

“When you eat a carbohydrate like pasta you should always add protein and some healthy fats to create a balanced meal. Healthy fats include olive oil, pine nuts, olives, oily fish and avocado.”

Here are some healthy and exceptionally easy pasta recipes for you to try out.

Recipe 1 - Mushroom and fresh parsley spaghetti

Healthy mushroom pasta dish

Ingredients (for two people):

• 200g of white mushrooms (chopped)
• 10g of dried mushrooms
• 2 cloves of garlic (crushed)
• 150g of spaghetti
• Handful of fresh parsley (chopped finely)
• 100ml of boiling water
• 1 tablespoon of liquid vegetable stock
• 1 lemon
• 1 tablespoon of olive oil
• 1 tablespoon of Greek yoghurt or crème fraiche


• Put your dried mushrooms in a bowl and cover in 100ml of boiling water. You’ll need to leave these to soak for around 10 minutes in total.

• Heat your oil in a pan and add your chopped mushrooms, garlic and stock. Cook for a few minutes until the mushrooms start to soften.

• In the meantime, cook your spaghetti in a separate pan of boiling water. This should take around 10 minutes.

• Once the spaghetti is al dente, drain the water away and throw the pasta into the pan with your mushrooms, garlic and stock.

• Take your bowl of dried mushrooms and drain the liquid through a sieve into your spaghetti.

• Chop the dried mushrooms finely and add them into the mix. Cook for a further couple of minutes.

• Take off the heat, stir in your crème fraiche/Greek yoghurt, throw in your fresh parsley and add a good squeeze of lemon.

• Season with salt and black pepper.

What are the health benefits?

Mushrooms are a great accompaniment to pasta. Not only are they kind to your waistline, they’re also a rich source of potassium. As this post explains, more exotic forms of mushroom - such as the shiitake - can reduce your chances of suffering from cardiovascular diseases.


Recipe 2 – Turkey, spinach and pasta Bolognese

Healthy turkey, spinach and pasta Bolognese

Ingredients (for two people):

• 250g of lean turkey mince
• 1 cup of spinach (30g)
• 1 chicken stock cube
• 150g of pasta
• 1 onion (diced)
• 1 clove of garlic (crushed)
• 1 tablespoon of olive oil
• Dried oregano
• Dried basil
• 1 squeeze of tomato puree
• 1 tin of chopped tomatoes
• Cheese topping optional


• Heat your oil in a pan and add your onion, garlic and tomato puree.

• Once the onions have softened, add your turkey mince to the pan and cook it through (around five minutes).

• Add your chopped tomatoes, stock, oregano and basil, and simmer on a low-to-medium heat for 10 to 15 minutes (you might want to add a splash of water in if you’re using a stock cube instead of a liquid version).

• While your sauce is simmering away, cook you pasta in a separate pan of water (for 10 minutes or until al dente).

• Throw your spinach into the sauce mix and wilt slightly.

• Season with salt and pepper and pour the sauce over the top of your pasta.

• Add some grated cheese on top if you’re feeling indulgent.

What are the health benefits?

Turkey is full of protein and is often leaner than beef mince. It’s also very cheap and tasty! Data from the University of Illinois Extension shows that a typical turkey breast without the skin contains 161 calories and an impressive 30g of protein. Spinach, meanwhile, has high zinc content and is a fantastic source of fibre, vitamin A, C, E and K.


Recipe 3 - Linguini di mare

Healthy linguini seafood dish

Ingredients (2 people)

• 1 tablespoon of olive oil
• 3 cloves of garlic
• 50g of sun-dried tomatoes
• 150g of linguini (or 100g of linguini, bulked out with a cup of cauliflower)
• Handful of fresh basil
• 200g of mixed seafood
• 1 fresh chilli
• ½ glass of white wine


• Heat your oil in a large pan and boil your linguini in a separate pan of water.

• Add garlic to the oil and allow it to cook through for three minutes.

• Blend sun-dried tomatoes, chilli, half of the basil and wine into a paste.

• Add the paste to the pan with the cauliflower (which should have been part boiled by this point).

• Add in the seafood and cook for up to 10 minutes.

• Chuck in half of the fresh basil around two minutes before you’re due to serve.

• Season to taste, mix in the pasta and serve. Use some of the pasta water to loosen it up if necessary.

• Top with the remaining fresh basil and lemon wedges if desired.

What are the health benefits?

Full of vitamins A and D, phosphorus and magnesium, seafood is not only a good source of protein, it’s also known to support brain development and reduce the risk of heart disease and strokes. Red chillies are underrated from a nutritional standpoint. Reports have previously hinted that they can burn fat, as they help to quell cravings for sweet, salty and fatty foods.

If you’re still keen to limit the amount of pasta you eat, then cauliflower is a good ingredient to use to bulk out your meals. With cauliflower rice seemingly growing in popularity, it appears this previously underappreciated vegetable is suddenly all the rage. And so it should be, given that just one serving contains 77% of your entire daily recommended intake of vitamin C.


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