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You can lose weight by eating pasta? It depends

By Susan Burke March

Quick! Don’t think about it, just answer. What is the very first item you should read on the Nutrition Facts label?

If you said calories, you’re wrong. Fat grams? Nope. Carbohydrates? Wrong again.

The most important piece of information on the Nutrition Facts label is the serving size. When you know that, you know everything you need to know.

However, many people confuse serving size with portion size. And therein is the problem, because there is a big difference between what’s listed on the package as “serving size” and what people typically think is a normal portion. More to follow.

The headline “You can lose weight by eating pasta, says the new study” made me laugh out loud. Seriously? And what else are you eating? Or more importantly, not eating?

I took the time to read the study behind this hopeful headline (published by SBS Australia). In the study published online in the British Medical Journal Open, researchers at a Toronto hospital conducted a meta-analysis of 30 randomized control trials involving nearly 2,500 participants. Participants replaced select servings of “usual” carbohydrate foods with pasta. They also ate mainly “low glycemic index foods,” which means foods that purportedly have a smaller impact on blood sugar compared to high GI foods.  [The glycemic index ranks carbohydrate foods based on the rate at which they are broken down into glucose, however, health experts note that this type of “diet” restriction is questionable — this is the subject of an upcoming column.]

The researchers concluded, “Pasta didn’t contribute to weight gain or increase in body fat … in weighing the evidence, we can now say with some confidence that pasta does not have an adverse effect on body weight outcomes when it is consumed as part of a healthy dietary pattern.”

Do you recall the very first line you should read on the Nutrition Facts label? Serving size. What was the amount of pasta included in this study? The people involved in the study ate 3.3 servings of pasta per week instead of other carbohydrates. One serving equals about one-half cup of cooked pasta.

One-half cup cooked. That’s about the size of a baseball. Pretty small.

By the way, the study includes some extremely important information. The BMJ reports, “Some of the authors have received prior research grants, in-kind donations of pasta for a randomized controlled trial, and travel support from the pasta maker Barilla.”

Something else bothered me about this headline. Didn’t I hear it before? I typed, “Study shows pasta does not cause you to gain weight” into Google and got 433 thousand ‘hits’! Really? For a study that just came out? Oh, wait! Some of these reports are from 2016. What gives?

Turns out, the new BMJ study is a repeat of a similar Italian study published in 2016. And just like the study just published, it’s making headlines. And it was also funded by Barilla pasta as well as the Italian Ministry of Economic Development.

Here’s the thing. No one eats a half-cup of pasta.

There’s a difference between a typical portion of pasta, and what the manufacturers write on the label as serving size. If you read the label and the first thing you look at is calories, you’ll see about 110 calories. OK! That’s not so bad!

But most people eat at least two cups cooked as their typical “portion,” so you need to pay attention. Read the Nutrition Facts label with an eye on the serving size, and then everything else follows. For example, if the label reads “serving size ½ cup cooked,” and you eat your typical 2 cups, then you’re eating 440 calories, without the sauce. Depending on you, that may be just right, or it may be a lot.

For most, it’s not the pasta that is “fattening,” it’s the topping. Say you ate a whole cup of pasta — that’s only 220 calories. But add just a half-cup of cream-based Alfredo sauce and you’re packing on an additional 220 calories plus 20 grams of fat.

Instead, tomato sauce is delicious and, better still, tomato sauce spiked with broccoli, kale, onions, and bell peppers!  You’re adding fiber, antioxidants, crunch and flavor, and all for about 65 calories for a ½ cup serving. And all pastas are not equal. In fact, we have options! Supermaxi carries whole-wheat pasta, which makes it higher in fiber and protein too.

Back to the headline, that eating pasta three times a week won’t make you fat. Of course, it won’t. But it won’t “cause” you to lose weight. With pasta, it’s all in the additions and the portion size.

And as for the science, well, Barilla knows. Why not toot your horn? Who else will?

Read more from the BMJ Open for the 2018 study. http://bmjopen.bmj.com/content/8/3/e019438

Read more from CNBC News about the 2016 study. https://www.cnbc.com/2016/07/05/pasta-doesnt-make-you-fat-say-italian-scientists.html