All foods containing carbohydrates break down into sugar. Sugar derived from pasta differs from sugar in candy and soft drinks, however. For overall wellness, the "Dietary Guidelines for Americans, 2010" recommends a diet containing 45 to 65 percent carbohydrates, which are prevalent in fruits, vegetables, sweets and starches, including pasta. Gaining understanding of how your body responds to and utilizes carbohydrates and how pasta varies from other sources may guide you toward making wise dietary decisions.
Your body cannot absorb nutrients from food in its original, whole form. This is where your digestive system comes in. Unlike added sugars, such as cane sugar and corn syrup, which digest in one step, starch from pasta digests in two steps, according to the National Digestive Diseases Information Clearinghouse. First, enzymes in your saliva and pancreas break starch down into a natural sugar called maltose. In the second step, an enzyme in the lining of your small intestine splits maltose into smaller glucose molecules, which can be stored in your blood. Glucose is your body's main dietary source of energy.
In addition to supplying energy, pasta may enhance your nutritional health. Choose whole-grain pasta most often, which provides more benefits than refined, or "white," pasta. As a fiber-rich food, whole-grain pasta may improve your blood sugar and energy levels, leading to improved appetite control and a lowered risk for diabetes. Whole grains are also linked with positive heart health. One cup of cooked whole-wheat spaghetti provides over 6 g of fiber, which is over one-third of women's daily recommended minimum and over one-quarter of men's. Whole grains also supply B vitamins, which play an important role in your energy and metabolism, and essential minerals, such as selenium and magnesium. Pasta is also free of added sugars, which may contribute to weight gain, poor nutrient intake and tooth decay. The DGA recommends eating at least three 1 oz. servings of whole grains per day and choosing whole grains over refined grains, such as instant noodles, at least half of the time.
In addition to providing fewer nutrients and less fiber, refined pasta has a higher glycemic index, or impact on your blood sugar, than does whole-grain pasta. A high-glycemic diet can increase your blood sugar, which stimulates production of the hormone insulin, according to the University of Wisconsin Center for Integrative Medicine, increasing your risk for appetite increases, weight gain, type 2 diabetes and diabetes complications. How you prepare and serve your pasta also influences its nutritional impact. Topping pasta with high-fat, creamy sauce or fatty meat adds significant amounts of calories and saturated fat, which may contribute to obesity and heart disease when consumed in excess. If you have diabetes, your body is more sensitive to sugars and starches. If you fail to stick to your diabetes-friendly meal plan, which typically allows three to four servings per day, you may experience complications.
Added sugars, such as cane sugar and high-fructose corn syrup, add sweet flavor and texture, but few nutrients, to foods. Most Americans consume more than 22 tsp. of added sugars per day, according to MayoClinic.com, which far exceeds the recommended limit of 6 tsp. per day for women and 9 tsp. per day for men. To avoid weight gain and other health risks associated with excessive added sugars, limit particularly sugar-rich foods, such as candy, milk chocolate, jelly, pancake syrup, frosting, frozen desserts and commercially prepared pastries, cookies, pies and cakes. Aim instead for a balanced diet based on fruits, vegetables and whole grains.
- U.S. Department of Health and Human Services: Dietary Guidelines for Americans, 2010
- National Digestive Diseases Information Clearinghouse: Your Digestive System and How it Works
- MayoClinic.com: High-Fiber Foods
- MayoClinic.com: Added Sugar
- University of Wisconsin Center for Integrative Medicine
- American Diabetes Association: Diabetes Myths