You might be surprised that I actually think of pasta as one of the foods associated with Thanksgiving. And according to a new study, that’s good news for my (and your) health.
The study of 23,000 people in Pozzilli, Italy, found that eating pasta is associated with lower risk of obesity. And not just body mass index (BMI), which I always say is an imperfect indicator of excess weight in any case.
The researchers found that pasta eaters also had smaller waist circumferences and waist-to-hip ratios—meaning they had less of the abdominal obesity that is associated with chronic health conditions like diabetes and heart disease.
These findings may surprise you, considering how pasta and other carbs have come under fire for their effects on metabolism and weight.
But that wasn’t the case back in the 1950s, ‘60s, and ‘70s, during the rare but memorable times when I made it back to the family farm in western Pennsylvania to join the entire extended family for Thanksgiving.
We gathered in the farmhouse my grandfather bought as his first permanent residence 70 years ago, and which my uncle still inhabits today.
The fall harvest of organic apples and other fruits and vegetables would be in, together with natural, grass-fed dairy and poultry, pork, lamb, and beef.
There would be wild turkey when one of my uncles brought one back from the hunt, often right in the woods around the farm. Venison or a capon (neutered rooster) would be on the table, always accompanied by corn, squash, beans, potatoes, cranberries, and other typical native American foods.
But also on the table would be lasagna and other dishes with pasta and tomato sauce (another native American food).
At the time, I was more concerned about “wait control,” or waiting for the meal, than weight control.
But now, I appreciate that we practiced the Italian tradition in which pasta is always considered a side dish, eaten after the appetizer (literally antipasto, or “before pasta”), and before the main course(s).
Which leads me back to the study findings. The researchers reported that pasta eaters more often adhere to the healthy Mediterranean diet, which may be the reason they don’t gain weight.
Having a small portion of pasta before the main meal may also help digestion by stimulating the metabolism to release insulin and other enzymes to prepare the body for the main meal. The insulin helps the body metabolize the glucose fuel from the main meal and deliver it to the body’s cells, where it’s needed—and not to the fat cells where, for many Americans, it is not needed.
This effect is the opposite of the unhealthy “sugar rush” and insulin spike that occurs after eating refined sugar and carbs.
We often find scientific reasons like this behind traditional dietary practices. And now the science shows what Italians have known all along: You don’t have to hold the pasta, as long as it is consumed in moderation. (The same is true with pizza—as long as the crust is thin, like you want to be).
When it’s combined with tomato sauces, herbs, and spices, a moderate portion of pasta can be a healthy addition to any meal. And that includes Thanksgiving, before the big bird.
“Association of pasta consumption with body mass index and waist-to-hip ratio: results from Moli-sani and INHES studies.” Nutrition & Diabetes (2016) 6, e218.