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Pasta and a healthy diet

Pasta is mainly carbohydrates.

Pasta, like many foods high in carbohydrates, often gets a bad reputation. But a little basic nutrition knowledge can dispel that right away.

Is pasta a healthy food?

Carbohydrates, though they are sometimes made out to be villains, are actually similar to natural sugars. When broken down they provide a major source of glucose, which is the body's 'energy factory'. Glucose is in turn broken down in a process called the tricarboxylic acid cycle.

Despite the complicated name, the idea is really very simple: break down sugar and release energy. That energy is used to repair cell damage, build muscles and for all the other chemical and physical actions the body takes to maintain itself. Without energy, nothing is possible.

Without sugar, the body feeds on stored fat in a less efficient process to provide that needed energy. If you're trying to lose weight and body fat, that's not bad. But it can only go so far. Eventually, you need to replenish your stores of energy. Carbohydrates are the way to do that.

A number called GI (Glycemic Index) measures how quickly the body's blood sugar level rises after the ingestion of a food. Gradual rises are better. Pasta has a GI of 41, which is similar to pears and lower than many breads.

Pasta is healthy in other ways, as well

Most pasta today is made from durum wheat. The semolina flour obtained from it is a good source of nutrition. It has plenty of B vitamins and folic acid, iron and niacin also known as vitamin B3. It's low in sodium and, despite some myths generated years ago, does not contain high cholesterol.

Pasta is made with eggs. It was once thought that eggs were nutritionally bad, that they were high in cholesterol. Subsequent research showed later just how healthy eggs really are, in moderation.

As many people know, pasta forms a major component of the diet of many Mediterranean cultures, such as Italy. There is ample evidence to suggest that the diet of such cultures is very healthy, as judged from the relatively low incidence of cancer and heart disease. There are many factors, of course. But pasta is a big contributor to that result.

Pasta itself is not fattening. A cup (two servings) of cooked pasta contains about 200 calories and one gram of fat. Provided sauces, meats and other ingredients in a pasta dish are controlled, there is nothing inherently high-calorie about a pasta-based meal. In particular, a low-carbohydrate diet doesn't necessarily lead to weight loss. What counts are the total calories, and pasta is on the low end of the scale.

Like other whole grain foods, there is also considerable evidence that these products high in insoluble fiber can help reduce the risk of certain types of cancers. While research is ongoing in the field, many studies show a reduction in colon, breast and other cancers, in part as a result of a high-fiber diet.

So go easy on the fattening meats and sauces and enjoy pasta regularly. It's a healthy food.

Pasta and the heart healthy diet

Like everything in nutrition, the heart health impact of pasta is an area of active research. Though there are dissenters, which is good since that's where new ideas come from, most experts agree that pasta is a heart-healthy food.

Made from durum wheat, pasta is a whole grain food. Whole grains are 'whole' because their bran and germ are still intact. Many types of common wheat processing remove that by milling. But since whole grains retain theirs, they are very good sources of fiber. And fiber is an important part of a heart-healthy diet.

Pasta is also typically enriched with folates, a synthetic form of B vitamins that are another component in a heart-healthy diet. Iron, needed to form red blood cells, niacin (vitamin B3), thiamine (vitamin B1), riboflavin (vitamin B2) and other compounds are also part of a whole grain. Those nutrients, along with vitamin E, phosphorus, magnesium and other minerals found in pasta, help regulate blood pressure. That's a major aspect of heart health, since the heart and blood vessels are, obviously, part of a connected system.

Apart from its inherently healthy attributes, pasta helps promote heart health in another way: by forming the base of many heart-healthy recipes. Because of its good taste, physical shape and sturdiness, and the ability to be easily cooked, pasta makes for the centerpiece of many fine preparations.

Provided certain meats and sauce ingredients are used in proper ways and proportions, pasta dishes can readily make for a very heart-healthy meal. Pasta itself is low in calories, cholesterol and fat. A cup (two servings) of cooked spaghetti contains about 200 calories and only a gram of fat.

  • A plate of spaghetti with pesto sauce

Pasta primavera, for example, is a great dish for those interested in a recipe that helps maintain heart health while being very tasty. Mix 250g of pasta with about a cup each of snow peas, corn, baby carrots and asparagus. Parboil the asparagus and peas for a few minutes. Parboil the carrots and corn until tender.

Boil the pasta to al dente (firm, not too soft nor undercooked), then drain. Add the other ingredients, then blend with 2/3 cup of low-fat cottage cheese and 2/3 cup of low-fat yogurt. Heat then add a little lemon juice and sprinkle with black pepper.

Tasty, and it's made from ingredients likely to be found on the Mayo Clinic site or other professional nutrition science sites. The result contains less than half a gram of saturated fat and 3 mg of cholesterol, while providing 6g of fiber per serving.

Provided you make judicious use of sauces, meats and other ingredients that often make their way into pasta recipes, you can enjoy pasta frequently and maintain a heart-healthy diet. Those in the Mediterranean do and have among the lowest incidences of heart disease of any culture.

Pasta is a universal pantry item. Trying to think of a place where some kind of pasta is not used is indeed hard. A brief history of pasta tells you how this ancient food became world superstar an it is still modern. Once one learns the basics of this great food, it is not surpriging to find it in every culture. Every cuisine has pasta dishes, there is pasta around the whole world and you could travel all countries eating nothing else.

There are more types of pasta than there are cell phone ring tones. This is not true, right, but there are many types. Pasta comes in many shapes and you can discover the long and the short of it.

You better learn pasta preparation, cooking and serving tips from the pros to avoid problems. Though pasta might look simple to cook, there are potential problems leading to a soggy food.

Getting to a few pasta recipes, start with the most simple of all, spaghetti a la carbonara. Don't forget that, for pasta, the sauce makes the dish.