My husband is Italian and pasta is his go-to comfort food. But he threw me a curve ball recently when he announced that he wanted to drop a few kilos without giving up his fave comfort food.
I know that carbs like pasta strike fear in the hearts of many!
I'm not a fan of regularly chowing down on huge bowls of highly-refined white pasta (unless you are an athlete and you are carb loading). Doing so can spike your blood-sugar and insulin levels, putting strain on the beta cells in your pancreas, and also push you into overnutrition.
But I also don't like unnecessary food-fear or demonisation. And I firmly believe that if you love to eat pasta, it can definitely be part of a healthy, balanced diet - especially if you make a few nutrition-boosting tweaks!
So here are my top tips for anyone wanting to enjoy pasta and avoid sending their blood-sugar and insulin levels sky high, and make sure they stay out of overnutrition. The aim of the game with these tweaks is to boost the nutrient content, cut the calories and/or reduce the glycemic impact.
1. It's all about the recipe and ingredients you choose - so choose wisely!
Traditional white pasta is made of refined wheat flour. It is high-carb and low-fibre and your body breaks it down into glucose and takes it in rapidly, which is why it spikes our blood-sugar and insulin. But it is important to remember is that your pasta dish is not just blood-sugar-and-insulin-spiking "carbs". That's reductionist thinking and it's soooooo 1990's dahlink. Every pasta meal we eat is made up of protein, carbohydrate and fats (not to mention fibre and an array of vitamins, minerals and phytonutrients) in differing amounts according to the recipe you choose. So choose wisely dahlinks!
Oh, and if you are a bit scared of carbs, check out THIS POST for my tips on getting carb smart!
2. Choose a lower ratio of pasta to other ingredients
For many people, an everyday pasta dish is 85-90% pasta (usually refined, simple carbohydrate, white flour-based pasta) and 10-15% cream or tomato-based sauce. When the great majority of your meal is highly refined, low-fibre carbohydrate, then you can expect that your blood sugar and insulin levels will spike. But when you add in protein, healthy fats and veggies you will lower the glycemic index - and impact - of your meal. This is why I prefer to keep the pasta in my recipes to less than 50% of the volume of my meal, and often it is less. So make sure you have at least the same amount of veggies, herbs and protein as pasta in your bowl. And you get bonus points for lean protein!
3. Go easy on the oily, creamy, cheesy sauces - or try some alternatives!
It's not just the insulin-spiking refined carbs in pasta dishes that can be problematic for pasta lovers. Slathering your pasta dishes in oily, creamy, cheesy sauces can seriously increase the saturated fat and energy content of your meal. That's fine for occasional indulgences, but not so good if it is your regular go-to meal.
But there are a few tweaks you can make to lower the sat-fat content of your pasta dishes:
1. You can mindfully cut back on the amounts of high sat-fat ingredients you add. So you can try a sprinkle of cheese rather than an avalanche, a tablespoon of light cream in place of a carton of full fat cream, or olive oil instead of butter.
2. You can experiment with some lower-fat substitutions. For example, a beautiful creamy pasta sauce can be achieved using tofu, low fat yoghurt or cashews.
3. You can be mindful of the calorie and nutritional impact of your pasta meal, choose to enjoy it in its creamy, buttery decadence - and introduce some balance into our overall diet and lifestyle by choosing to indulge occasionally instead of often, and maybe even make some other counterbalancing choices like adding in some extra veggies to your other meals and snacks or taking a salubrious stroll after dinner!
4. Read labels at the Supermarket and Try Something Different!
The average supermarket now offers an ever-increasing variety of pastas. And the differences aren't restricted to different shapes. Pasta can be made from a wide variety of ingredients, not just refined white wheat flour. The protein, fibre and carbohydrate content can vary widely.
You can choose wholemeal pasta, or go a bit freestyle and give those new "pulse pastas" (made with legumes instead of wheat) a try. All of the ones we have tried recently have received my husband's seal of approval and have been much higher in protein and fibre, and lower in carbohydrate, than our usual white pasta choices.
I really encourage my clients to read labels at the supermarket. And when it comes to "carby" foods like pasta, bread and crackers I have a handy rule of thumb!
Step 1: Check the label, and focus on the "per 100g" column.
Step 2: Look at the amount of Carbohydrate (total carbohydrate). It will be listed there in grams.
Step 3: Look for the amount of fibre. Again, it will be listed in grams. And here's a pro tip: if fibre isn't listed you can be pretty sure it's basically non-existent in that product!
The ratio of carbohydrate to fibre should not be higher than 10:1. If it is, the product is actually too refined to legitimately be classified as "wholegrain". It will spike your blood sugar and insulin almost as much as regular pasta! So give it a miss if it the carb:fibre ratio is more than 10:1. If the product has a carb:fibre ratio of 7:1 or lower, it gets the green light.
5. Cool Your Carbs!
This is my all-time favourite carb tweak! I love it because not only does it lessen the blood sugar and insulin impact of my pasta meals, it also boosts the resistant starch content which is food for the super-healthy cancer-fighting bacteria in my large intestine!
You can read about this HERE and HERE, but in a nutshell, when you refrigerate cooked carbs for 12 hours or overnight, a process called retrogradation takes place. A proportion of the carbs convert to Resistant Starch, which is not digestible in our small intestine. That means means that the glycemic load of the food is lower, your blood sugar won't surge as high after you eat these foods, and there will be a lower insulin response too. But there's another benefit: that undigestible Resistant Starch then travels to your large intestine, where it becomes food for your healthy inner bacteria! So that's a win-win!
And reheating the pasta can drop the glycemic impact even further. So try enjoying your pasta as a chilled pasta salad or reheated after refrigerating overnight - or both!
6. Watch your pasta potion sizes
There is usually a HUGE difference between a portion size recommended in the Australian Dietary Guidelines and the portions we regularly dish out at home. And over time, day-by-ay and meal-by-meal, that can have a significant damaging effect on our metabolic health, not to mention our waistlines.
Here's a fun fact: When it comes to pasta, one serve is actually only half a cup of cooked pasta.
So the average Australian pasta dinner might actually contain two or three portions or refined carbohydrate... I don't know about you, but when I'm hungry I can easily hoover down half a cup of pasta in 3 or 4 enthusiastic forkfuls!
And to make things more complicated, the size of our bowls and plates has increased significantly over the last 20 years. And sensible, portion-controlled meal can look meagre on huge dinner plates...
So definitely consider serving your pasta in smaller plates or bowls to help you keep track of how much you are actually portioning out and eating!
7. Practice Hara Hatchi Bu
Hara Hatchi Bu is a Japanese term, which roughly translates to “eat until you are 80% full”. I wrote about my top tips for practising Hara Hatchi Bu HERE. Check it out for all the goods, and make sure you practise my top tip of slowing down the pace you eat at, and waiting 20 minutes before going back for more to give your body's satiety signals time to kick in and to make sure you are still genuinely hungry before going for seconds.
8. Try Zoodles (Zucchini noodles) or other veggie noodles
OK, OK! So if you do this you are eliminating pasta altogether. But I don't think that's such a bad thing if you are replacing it with veggies! This is because Australians aren't consuming frighteningly low levels of pasta, but they ARE consuming far to little vegetables. You can read more about this HERE, but bottom line, as far as I'm concerned, using veggies in place of pasta is a good thing if it boosts your daily veg intake - and provided you find a recipe you enjoy!
So these are my top tips! The overarching aim is to find delicious tweaks that will boost your health.
So whilst I want you to try out all of these tweaks, only incorporate those ones you genuinely enjoy into your regular meal rotation!