best natural foods

Health benefits of pasta

The health benefits of pasta are best appreciated in terms of pasta as an entire dish or meal, rather than just the pasta itself. Because nobody eats pasta on its own with nothing else.

So let's consider what a pasta dish consists of:

  • pasta - a complex carbohydrate, making up the main portion
  • a pasta sauce with usually tomato or olive oil as its base
  • vegetables, meat, preserved meat or seafood
  • herbs like basil as additional flavouring.

This makes for quite a healthy pasta meal. But of course, the actual health benefits of pasta depends on how you put this meal together.

I ever ate "pasta" that consisted of soft and soggy highly refined noodles with a sauce that was basically starch plus colouring and flavouring, with tiny bits of minced meat and no vegetables. Needless to say, that horrible pasta was served at a "fast food" restaurant.

And this brings us to a broader issue regarding the health benefits of pasta... Because pasta is easy to prepare, it encourages home cooking rather than eating out. When you cook at home, you can enhance the health benefits of pasta by using:

  • wholewheat / wholemeal or semi-wholemeal pasta instead of refined pasta
  • organic pasta
  • homemade pasta sauce - without MSG, preservatives and other chemical additives
  • good quality extra virgin olive oil
  • natural sea salt or rock salt instead of refined salt
  • more vegetables
  • less meat / good quality preserved meats without chemical additives
  • more herbs, including fresh herbs.

Even without these homemade enhancements, the typical pasta meal is relatively healthy although not ideal. We examine this in greater detail below...


Health benefits of pasta - pattern of eating

The typical pasta meal consists of mainly pasta, which is a grain product. If you just eat a pasta dish, you may be eating between 70 to 90 percent grains, depending on how the dish is prepared. If you add on a soup and/or salad, plus meat or seafood as the main course, then grains might make up 40 to 60 percent of your entire food intake.

This pattern of eating is one of the most important - yet often most neglected - aspects of healthy eating. Many people think in terns of which foods contain more vitamins, minerals and other nutrients but then they end up with strange eating patterns - like having salads or fruits as their main food. Or, those less concerned about health might eat meat, or even chocolate bars, as their main food.

For tens of thousands of years, however, the bulk of humanity has been eating grains as their primary, staple food. This is the pattern recommended in macrobiotics.


Health benefits of pasta - complex carbohydrates

Grains and grain products like pasta provide mainly complex carbohydrates.

In recent years, carbohydrates have earned a bad reputation as a fattening food and several so-called health experts advocate a high-protein / high-fat diet to help people lose weight. While such diets may work in the short-term, they are ultimately harmful in the long term. Click here to learn more about the harm of excessive protein and the health benefits of pasta and carbohydrates.

It is important to differentiate between simple and complex carbohydrates. Simple carbohydrates - from sugar, honey and similar products - are quickly and easily digested. This leads to two main problems:

  1. It causes a sudden rise in the blood sugar level, prompting the pancreas to secrete insulin to bring the sugar level down because too much sugar in the blood can cause death. In turn, this may lead to the sugar level dropping too low, causing a craving for sugar. The person takes more sugar and the process repeats iteself, causing blood sugar levels to fluctuate wildly. Eventually, this leads to malfunction of the pancrease, resulting in diabetes (high blood sugar).

  2. Excess simple carbohydrates, if not burned up through exercise and physical activity, is easily converted into body fat.

Complex carbohydrates, such as those provided by grains and grain products like pasta, do not cause these problems. People who follow a macrobiotic diet, as well as people in poor and rural societies, are generally slim despite eating mainly grains.


Glycemic Index

Another way to look at the health benefits of pasta is in terms of the Glycemic Index - which measures how fast a food causes the blood sugar level to rise. Depending on the type, pastas generally have low Glycemic Indices ranging from 30 to 40+. This is attributed to the durum wheat, which is slower to digest compared with other grains.

Personally, I do not subscribe to the Glycemic Index theory because I feel that it looks at only a very narrow and specific aspect of food.

For one thing, food is never eaten in isolation. Rice, for example, has a relatively high glycemic index compared to pasta. Bu when rice is eaten with other foods, particularly with foods that contain oil, then the rice dish (as opposed to plain rice) will have a much lower Glycemic Index.


Flour versus whole grains

Taking a broader view of the health benefits of pasta, however, there are reasons to view pasta as being not so healthy compared to other whole grains. There are two main concerns:

  1. Refined grains: Pasta is mostly made from refined wheat, with most of the fibre, vitamins, minerals and essential fatty acids removed. So if you can, make an effort to eat more wholewheat / wholemeal pasta, or at least partially refined pasta. And if you can, look for organic pasta.

    In countries like the US, pasta is required by law to be enriched with certain nutrients, particularly folic acid. Yes, this might enhance the health benefits of pasta. But remember... Lots of nutrients are removed and discarded when grains are refined and only a few are put back when refined grain products are "enriched". Moreover, the "enrichment" is usually achieved through the use of synthetic rather than natural vitamins.

  2. Flour vs whole grains: Pasta is a flour product, unlike other grains like brown rice, millet, barley etc which are eaten as whole grains. This is because wheat is very chewey and hard to eat as a whole grain.

    The disadvantage of flour products ls that once the grain is broken up to make flour, it begins to oxidise and degenerate in quality. It is like how an apple, when cut, starts to turn brown. In the case of flour, the process is slower and less obvious. Still, it happens.

    The best flour products are therefore those made from fresh flour. In Singapore, for example, there is one Japanese soba restaurant where they grind the buckwheat and make the soba noodles fresh on the premises, right in front of the restaurant for all to see. The soba there is not only healthy, but very delicious - and quite different from regular soba.


Health benefits of pasta - other ingredients

To fully appreciate the health benefits of pasta, we need also to consider other key ingredients. This shall be discussed more fully in later articles. But for now, it suffices to note the following:

  • Olive oil consists mainly of monounsaturated fats and is widely regarded as a "healthy fat". Indeed, all traditional societies have used primiarly monounsaturated fats (others being peanut oil and sesame oil) as well as saturated fats (like animal fat, butter, ghee and coconut oil), And they do not have high rates of heart disease.

  • Cooked tomato, in the form of tomato sauce and stews, is healthier than raw tomato. Many people take for granted that raw vegetables and fruits provide better nutrition than cooked food.

    In recent years, however, much scientific study has been done on lycopenes, a group of chemical compounds that gives tomato its red colour. Lycopenes have been found to protect against heart disease, cancer and other degenerative diseases, And the surprising finding is that well-cooked tomato has much higher levels of lycopenes - in some cases more than 170 percent higher - than raw tomato.


Health benefits of pasta - summary

To summarise, there are certainly significant health benefits of pasta.

Yet it is by no means an ideal food as it is made mostly from refined flour. People with serious health challenges, such as those recovering from cancer, might be better off eating more whole grains and minimising their consumption of pasta to occasional treats.

Those in relatively good health can enjoy pasta more regularly.




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BEST NATURAL FOODS

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(5 articles)
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Diet plans (13 articles)
Fiber (3 articles)
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Pasta (10 articles)
Pasta recipes
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Vegetables (1 article)
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