Pastas Make You Fat – or Do They?


Pastas Make You Fat – or Do they?

If you were to make a list of your favorite comfort foods, would pasta be on the list? For many people, it would be. Eating pasta has its advantages. It’s relatively easy to prepare and you can dramatically change the taste by varying the sauce you place on it.

How versatile is pasta? According to Jamie Oliver, chef and author, pasta comes in more than 600 different shapes. Combine that with the umpteen pasta sauces you can place on it and you’ve got lots of tasty options.

So, most pastas are easy-to-make and remarkably versatile – why wouldn’t you want to eat it? If you’re watching your waistline, you might, understandably, shy away from pasta. After all, it’s earned a reputation as being fattening. But what if that thinking is all wrong?

Are Pastas Actually a Weight Loss Food?

According to a new study carried out at the University of Manchester, the bad rap pasta gets may be undeserved. In this study, researchers looked at the eating habits of more than 23,000 Italians and questioned them about how much pasta they ate. Surprisingly, those who enjoyed more pasta had a lower likelihood of obesity. Surprisingly, eating pasta was also linked with smaller waist size.

Of course, this study doesn’t prove causation – that eating pasta causes fat loss. Rather it shows a link between eating pasta and smaller waist size and lower risk of obesity. What’s important to remember is the study didn’t look at the context in which pasta is eaten. In the case of pasta eating in Italy, it’s typically a part of a Mediterranean diet, one of the healthiest diets in the world.

Health Benefits of the Mediterranean Diet

A number of studies show the Mediterranean diet is linked with health benefits, including a lower risk of heart attacks, stroke, and overall mortality. The Mediterranean eating plan emphasizes fruits, vegetables, nuts, olive oil, whole grains, and moderate amounts of lean protein, mostly chicken and fish. It’s a diet that de-emphasizes processed foods and added sugar. In other words, when an Italian eats pasta, it’s more likely to be within the context of a Mediterranean diet – with olive oil and vegetables.

How does pasta eating in America differ from that of Italy? For one, Americans love grated cheese on their pasta. Not so much in Italy. An Italian enjoying a plate of pasta is more likely to use a very small amount of freshly grated cheese, making the calorie content lighter. Italians are also less likely to use heavy meat sauces or cover a dish of pasta in alfredo sauce, a very thick, heavy, calorie-laden sauce.

Another major difference between American and Italian pasta eating is portion size. A typical portion of pasta in Italy is around 3.5 ounces, about 3 times less than the quantity you get at Italian restaurants in America. Plus, Italians often eat pasta as a side dish rather than as a main course. The smaller portion size must make a difference since the obesity rate in Italy in 2012 was just under 10% whereas it’s 36% in America.

Italians Move More

You can attribute some of the lower obesity rates to the fact that women who live in Europe, including Italy, walk more than women in America. It’s easier to walk to where you need to go to in Italy than it is in America. Interestingly, pasta consumption has actually fallen in recent years in Italy. The reason? Ironically, more Italians now believe that pasta is fattening.

Are pastas, consumed Italian style, really as “unflattering” as the data suggests? Pasta made with white flour has a high glycemic index and load, meaning it causes a rapid rise in blood sugar. On the other hand, if you choose whole grain pasta, the glycemic load is only moderate. In general, foods that cause a rapid rise in blood sugar and insulin are more likely to cause weight gain, especially if you don’t watch your portion sizes.

A little-known way to make pasta more blood sugar friendly is to cook it and refrigerate it to cool it down. This turns carbohydrates in the pasta into a form of starch your body can’t easily digest. This “resistant starch” remains even when you reheat the pasta. When you do this, your digestive tract treats the resistant starch in pasta like a fiber. It goes through your body without causing a rapid rise in blood sugar and without being used as an energy source. In one study, heating, cooling and then reheating pasta reduced the blood sugar response by 50%. This should theoretically reduce hunger as well.

Alternatives To Pastas

Though this study suggests that pasta may not be bad for your bodyweight or your waistline, pasta isn’t the most nutritious food, especially relative to non-starchy vegetables. One alternative is to make “pasta” from veggies. If you have a vegetable spiralizer, you can make strings of vegetable that can substitute for a bed of pasta. One of the most popular examples is “zoodles,” noodles made from zucchini. When you eat this type of pasta, you get the extra health benefits that vegetables offer.

The Bottom Line

This study is destined to make pasta lovers happy, but don’t be too quick to overload your plate with forkfuls of pasta. Portion size matters as does the sauce you place on it. If you eat pasta within the context of a Mediterranean diet, like the Italians do, and choose whole-grain, high-fiber pasta, you are less likely to gain weight than if you eat it with a heavy, cream or cheese based sauce. Also, the higher activity level of the Italians helps them handle starchy carbs better.

Just as important is eating pasta in moderation. Remember, Italians generally don’t eat pasta as their main course, but as a side dish. They also eat in a slow, leisurely manner. This in and of itself may reduce how much they eat. Why not do the same? When you eat pasta or any food, consume it mindfully and really enjoy every bite. Then take a walk afterward. If you do these things, you’ll be consuming pasta “Italian style,” which seems to be a healthier way to do it. Even better, explore the world of pasta alternatives, like zoodles.

The take-home message here is pasta in moderation probably won’t cause your waist to grow and may even do the opposite. The key is to enjoy it in the context of an overall healthy diet and lifestyle – in moderation.



Jamie Oliver. “Why Everyone Should Love Pasta”

Business Insider. “Italian versus Italian-American Cuisine”

Los Angeles Times. “Why aren’t Italians fat? It’s a question of pasta portion size”

The Wall Street Journal. “Italy Loses Its Taste for Pasta”

Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. “Carbohydrates and Blood Sugar”

Medical Daily. “A Healthy Meal: Cooking And Cooling Pasta Changes Starch Quality To Cut Calories, Fat”


Related Articles By Cathe:

Dietary Splurges: 6 Tips for Indulging Sensibly

Why are Processed Foods So Hard to Give Up?

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Are Whole Grains Good or Bad for Your Gut and for Your Health?


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