In some circles carbs are considered the devil with bread and pasta being the ultimate sin. But for the majority of us pasta is a quick, easy and cheap meal and certainly a staple for many kids – but is it actually healthy?
The main argument against carbs is that they raise insulin levels and its insulin that takes sugar out of the blood and stores it as fat. So, not only do you put on weight, you increase the risk of diabetes and other diseases from excess insulin levels. Whilst this may be true, we do need some carbohydrates to function efficiently. We just don’t need the high sugar, refined and junk foods we see everywhere.
Pasta actually has a relatively low GI and GL (a score given to foods as to their effect on blood sugar levels). That said the GI score alters if it is overcooked. Serving pasta ‘al dente’ means the food takes longer to digest which slows the sugar, whereas overcooking it means it’s far easier to release the sugars.
The key problem with pasta is portion control. A serving of pasta equates to a cup of cooked pasta (about the size of a fist). How many of us stop there? People tend to pile up their plates and effectively gorge. Plus, I frequently see the pasta being the main element to a meal; it’s healthier to consider pasta as a vehicle for sauce, the way that rice is to a curry. I don’t want to fill myself up on nutrient-lacking refined ‘white’ pasta but I do want plenty of nutritious sauce on my plate.
So what’s the answer? You can choose healthier pasta options (see below). White pasta has been stripped of its fibre and nutrients during processing leaving it a poor choice. But the main problem is that carb foods such as bread and pasta should always be eaten with protein to slow the sugar down and help control insulin levels. And by protein I’m not talking about the sprinkling of parmesan on top or a high-calorie cheesy sauce. If your sauce isn’t heavy on protein, try having a salad sprinkled with seeds on the side or some meat or fish with your meal.
The way pasta is meant to be eaten makes perfect sense. An antipasti of meat or vegetables to start, then the small pasta (primi plate) followed by the main (secondi) which is meat or fish.
Healthier pasta options
- Wholewheat pasta – the nutrients haven’t been removed and the high fibre levels help keep you fuller for longer and slow the release of the sugar. This is a good source of B vitamins, essential for energy balance and other nutrients such as magnesium.
- Buckwheat or brown rice soba noodles – there is no reason why you can’t substitute wheat pasta for noodles. Buckwheat isn’t a grain but a seed and contains high-quality protein along with antioxidants.
- Bean pasta – I usually buy from from lavida. Their website shows who stocks it or you can buy online. I especially like the mung bean fettuccine which is 92% mung beans and only water as the other ingredient so it’s probably the healthiest pasta you can eat.
- Gluten free pastas – the main ones in the supermarkets are rice, millet or corn. I’m not a great fan of these as they can be higher GI as they’re not wholegrain and so offer little nutritionally. I also find they can be tricky to cook and can turn sludgy.
Healthy sauce suggestions
We love this roasted vegetable pasta sauce which which contains chickpeas and a rainbow of vegetables such as squash, peppers, red onions, courgettes and garlic. A healthy sauce can be a great vehicle for getting kids to eat more of the good stuff.
This Bolognese is somewhat of a staple in our house as it contains so many nutrients and can be made in bulk and frozen for speedy meals. The ‘meaty’ texture actually comes from the cauliflower and beans. I do sometimes add meat but you don’t need to and the beans offer a good source of protein so it’s really a taste thing. For fussy eaters it’s a great way to pack in loads of vegetables and beans.
We keep jars of this pesto in the freezer as it makes such a quick meal and is also delicious on bruschetta or roasted veg. Adding a mix of pine kernels and nuts and seeds offers a broader range of nutrients. The flavour of the basil is quite overpowering which means it’s a great way to sneak in more vegetables to enhance the nutritional profile. We like to use kale but rocket, watercress or broccoli also work well.
For a lighter, very low-carb option you can also try courgetti which is really simple and delicious for a light meal and you don’t have to worry about portion sizes with this one. The spicy prawn sauce is also delicious with linguine and it’s ready in under 5 minutes!
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