Carbohydrates have come under increasing scrutiny in recent years. Although low-carb diets are gaining in popularity, research has shown that for weight loss, reducing your consumption of calories is more important than restricting carbohydrate content of the diet. Moreover, chronic adherence of a low-carbohydrate diet may not be the best strategies for long-term optimal health. In addition, studies have shown that a Mediterranean diet, which features pasta as the base carbohydrate, may aid glycemic control better than low-fat or low-carbohydrate diets. In honor of National Pasta Day, we’re talking carbs, pasta, and all the things there are to love.
Carbohydrates are the body’s preferred energy source. The breakdown of carbohydrates begins in the mouth where salivary amylase breaks starch into polysaccharides and maltose. Most carbohydrate digestion takes place in the small intestine where disaccharides (sucrose, maltose and lactose) are broken into their constituent monosaccharides (glucose, fructose, and galactose). Most carbohydrates are broken down into glucose, which is the primary fuel utilized by the brain and working muscles. Excess dietary glucose can be stored in the liver and muscle cells as glycogen. If there is a surplus of glucose that is not used by the cells, glucose can be converted into glycogen and stored in the liver or muscle tissue for secondary energy storage. This process is extremely important to ensure that the body has an adequate supply of energy at all times.
Carbohydrates & Exercise
Since there is only about 80 calories worth of readily available glucose in the blood, glucose levels are used up rapidly during exercise. Thus, the body turns to glycogen for energy since an adult can store approximately 2000 calories of carbohydrates in the form of glycogen. This is especially important in the context of energy needed throughout the day or energy needed to fuel exercise. If sufficient intake of carbohydrates is not achieved, glycogen levels will be depleted and energy levels will plummet, so it is critical that carbohydrate intake is increased before and after exercise. Studies have shown that eating carbohydrates 3-4 hours before exercise increases liver and muscle storage of glycogen and enhances exercise performance.
Pasta: A Carbohydrate Packed with Nutritious Elements
Endurance athletes have utilized the power of pasta for decades. But you don’t need to be an athlete to unlock the nutritious potential of pasta. Here are 3 reasons pasta has us celebrating:
1. Whole Grains
A whole grain is defined as the entire grain seed of a plant. The grain seed is made up of three key parts: the bran, the germ, and the endosperm. To be considered a whole grain food, the product must deliver approximately the same relative proportions of bran, germ, and endosperm found in the original grain. Whole grains may be consumed cracked, split, flaked, or ground. There are a variety of whole grain sources found in complete foods like oatmeal, brown rice, or popcorn, or incorporated as an ingredient in food, such as whole wheat flour in pasta.
According to the International Food and Information Council Foundation 2015 Food and Health Survey, whole grains is the top dietary factor influencing Americans’ purchasing decisions. Significantly up from 2014, 67% of Americans reported in 2015 that the presence (or lack thereof) of whole grains impacted their purchasing decisions, indicating that whole grain content is increasingly top of mind for many American consumers.
This rising interest in whole grains may be attributed to the plethora of health benefits that whole grains possess. Studies have consistently found that individuals reporting eating three or more servings of whole grain foods per day have a decreased risk for cardiovascular disease compared to individuals with lower intakes of whole grains. Whole grains are also associated with a reduced risk of cancer, specifically gastrointestinal cancers such as gastric and colonic cancer. In addition, whole grains may also play a role in promoting weight management. Large epidemiological studies have shown that people who integrate whole grains into their diet are less likely to gain weight over time—this association has been confirmed in randomized clinical trials.
Dietary fiber provides structure in plant cell walls, is found in all types of plant foods, including fruits, vegetables, legumes and whole grains. Fiber is non-digestible type of carbohydrates and lignin, but it may be fermented in the human gut to produce a small amounts of energy in the form of short chain fatty acids. The most well-known health effect of fiber is laxation. Some fibers may also help maintain healthy blood lipid concentrations (e.g., cholesterol), lower the postprandial blood glucose response (i.e., stabilize blood sugar levels), and enhance production of beneficial bacteria in the gut microbiome.
Fiber is commonly classified as soluble or insoluble. Soluble fiber dissolves in water whereas insoluble fiber does not. Similarly to whole grains, fiber intake is associated with significant health benefits by decreasing cardiovascular disease and coronary heart disease as well as reducing rates of breast cancer.
Fiber intake recommendations depend on age, gender, and caloric intake. For example, it is recommended that for every 1000 calories, 14 grams of fiber is consumed. Moreover, the 2010 Dietary Guidelines echo the Institute of Medicine (IOM) recommendation for women to consume 25 grams and men take in 38 grams of fiber each day. Unfortunately, data suggest that Americans are falling short of these recommendations and only consuming around 15 grams per day. Whole wheat pasta offers an “excellent” solution to deficient fiber intake by delivering more than 24% of the Recommended Daily Intake (RDI) for fiber in just one serving. Foods with at least 10% RDI for fiber are considered a “good source,” while foods with 20% or more of the RDI are considered an “excellent source.”
3. Fortified with Nutrients
Pasta can come in a variety of shapes, sizes and flavors. While shape and size do not affect nutrient content, fortified and flavored pasta can modify nutritional profiles. Pasta can either be made from whole wheat or enriched, refined white wheat. Enrichment of white wheat originated in an effort to prevent neural tube defects during pregnancy. As such, in the late 1990s the Food and Drug Administration mandated that folic acid, a B vitamin, be added to all products made from enriched grains. The Recommended Dietary Allowance (RDA) from the IOM varies by age and life stage (e.g., pregnant and lactating women should consume more). It is recommended that both men and women (ages 14+) consume ≥400 µg of folate per day. One cup of cooked pasta delivers 167 µg of folate.
In addition to folic acid, pasta can also be fortified with protein, a macronutrient that supports satiety, weight management and lean muscle. The RDA for protein is 0.8 g/kg/day for adults. This intake was defined by the IOM as the level to meet sufficient protein requirements of the majority of healthy individuals. However, it is important to understand that this recommendation was set to prevent deficiencies rather than promoting optimal health.
The IOM has established an Acceptable Macronutrient Distribution Range for protein, which states that 10-35% of calories should come from protein. Studies show that Americans consume about 16% of their calories from protein. Both regular and whole grain pasta contain 7g of protein per serving, although some pastas have been fortified with protein and contain up to 10g per serving, making these fortified pasta options good sources of protein.
Some pastas are also fortified with poly- and monounsaturated fatty acids, the type of fats known to reduce or maintain blood cholesterol levels. Alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), a polyunsaturated fatty acid found in plant and vegetable sources, can be found in various fortified pastas to deliver healthful omega-3 fatty acid. Some fortified pastas are rich in omega-3 fatty acids offering 200mg of ALA per serving, or about 15% of the daily recommended value for ALA. Large epidemiological studies have shown ALA-specific protective effects against cardiovascular disease, which have also been examined in intervention trials.
Pasta: An Affordable Carbohydrate with a Multitude of Benefits.
Pasta has always been made with only two simple ingredients – durum wheat and water. For those looking to simplify their plate, pasta is a great choice. Since pasta is plant derived, it also has a low- ecological (and low-water) footprint.
Beyond its production, pasta offers a nutritious foundation for a balanced meal. It can be part of a quick and versatile dish that, when prepared with healthful ingredients such as veggies and lean proteins, provides a nutrient-rich meal. But keep portion sizes in mind—one serving of pasta is about size of one baseball. Including adequate amounts of carbohydrate, as part of a healthful diet is, and always has been, essential to good health.