When it comes to weight management, figuring out which food you should be eating is a key strategy and one that many people struggle with. One food that is often the subject of debate is pasta, particularly the connection between pasta and weight gain.
For the most part, pasta tends to be viewed as a food that should probably be avoided, even though many people love it. Likewise, most people assume that pasta contributes to weight gain and even to health issues, especially as it is high in carbs.
But, are those assumptions actually true or can pasta actually be a part of a healthy diet?
Well, one recent research study (Pounis et al., 2016) took a look at this topic and the outcomes of the study have been making waves in the news and social media. In this post, I’m going to take a look at precisely what the researchers found and what this means for health and weight loss.
The Study Itself
With this study, the emphasis was on pasta in the context of the Mediterranean diet. The Mediterranean diet itself is a broad term, which essentially refers to the eating patterns of people in Mediterranean countries. The diet approach includes a strong focus on whole foods, including fruits and vegetables, as well as nuts. The diet also relies on olive oil instead of butter and herbs and spices for flavoring instead of salt. Pasta is also another significant component of the diet.
The Mediterranean diet as a whole has been strongly associated with health and weight loss and there has been extensive research into the diet (1,2). However, figuring out which precise elements of the diet contribute to health is more challenging simply because there are many different practices that make up the diet.
This study looked at outcomes from 14,402 participants from Molise and 8,964 participants from Italy. Those groups were referred to as the Moli-sani and INHES data sets, respectively. The similarity between those two data sets and the approaches for sampling them allowed the authors to consider results for two significantly different populations.
For the study, the authors focused on the dietary practices of participants, particularly their pasta intake, along with measures of BMI and obesity.
The choice of sample population meant that participants were following the Mediterranean diet to some degree. However, within Italy (as in the United States), there has been a tendency toward decreasing pasta consumption, so the authors were interested in seeing what implications this had for health.
Overall, the authors found that higher levels of pasta consumption increased how well people followed the Mediterranean diet.
At the same time, pasta intake was connected with reduced BMI across both populations. For the Molise region, higher pasta intake was also associated with improved waist circumference and a decreased risk of obesity.
Additionally, that BMI impact was independent of how well people followed the Mediterranean diet and of the total calories that they ate in a day. This means that pasta was associated with lower BMI, regardless of the specifics of the diet that people followed.
As such, these outcomes support the idea that pasta can be a component of a healthy diet and may even significantly contribute to weight loss.
Strengths and Limitations
As is often the case, the key strengths and limitations of this study can be connected to its design.
One strength was that the study used two data sets and, as such, considered two separate populations.
Considering two populations like this reduces the risk for error in the study and helps to show that the observed outcomes were not simply an artifact of the population being studied. Indeed, most of the outcomes from the study were consistent across the two population, which offers further support for the conclusions that he study drew.
In particular, the study is an observational study. This means that the authors did not try to control or manipulate any variables. Instead, they looked at the eating decisions that people made and weight-related outcomes.
One advantage of this approach is that it let the authors look at a large number of participants, which is a powerful outcome. Doing so allows the authors to be much more confident in their observed results and significantly reduces the risk of error.
However, at the same time, the design makes it impossible to test for cause and effect. This means that the authors have no way of knowing whether or not pasta consumption actually caused the observed differences in weight-related outcomes.
One final thing to consider with this study is that the outcomes are specific to the Mediterranean diet. So, it’s possible that the same patterns may not hold true with other dietary approaches.
However, despite this, the study did clearly show that the connection between pasta and weight gain is not as simple as we normally assume. Instead, the role that pasta plays in weight is connected to our diet as a whole and it seems that pasta can help people to lose weight.
One other strength of the study was that similar outcomes have been found in other cases.
For example, one 2012 study found a connection between higher carbohydrate intakes and a lower BMI in the United States (3) and a similar outcome was found for older adults in the Mediterranean islands (4).
The True Connection Between Pasta and Weight Gain
When it comes to health and nutrition, there is a lot of hype and conflicting advice out there.
This makes it extremely difficult to figure out what you should be doing to stay healthy and to lose weight.
Recently, there has been a growing focus on the importance of cutting down carbs in our diet.
At the same time, an increasing number of people are turning to healthy and whole foods and to approaches like mindful eating to help them live healthier. The latter approach is something the site Mindful talks about in much more detail.
In the case of pasta, this current study reinforces the idea that as part of a healthy diet, pasta isn’t likely to do any harm. In fact, it may even contribute to weight loss. This outcome turns the connection between pasta and weight gain on its head but the outcome does actually make a lot of sense.
Realistically, health and weight problems are rarely ever connected to a specific food or even food group. Instead, these issues are much more strongly connected to lifestyle and eating approaches.
This is why you can lose weight on a low fat diet and also on a low carb diet. Likewise, there are many lifestyle approaches that can help with health and weight loss, such as intermittent fasting or the Mediterranean diet. In fact, there are many differences between the various options for a healthy diet and lifestyle, which reinforces the fact that there is no single approach that works for everyone.
More than anything, this particular research study shows that pasta is not the villain when it comes to weight loss. Instead, any connection between pasta and weight gain is connected to a person’s overall diet and lifestyle, rather than whether or not they eat pasta.
That doesn’t make pasta a weight loss tool – despite what the media seems to think.
Instead, the study shows that pasta can be part of a healthy diet and that there is no need to cut it out of your food choices.
Realistically, this outcome is true for many different types of food as well. In most cases, the solution isn’t to avoid a specific type of food or food group but to adjust your diet and lifestyle so it is healthy overall.
Likewise, the study also suggests that pasta helped people to stick to the Mediterranean diet, which would in turn result in better health outcomes. And, the Mediterranean diet can be an appealing way to eat anyway, as the recipes at Olive Tomato clearly show.
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