One thing svelte Italians get asked a lot by foreigners is how they manage to live surrounded by such nice food without being overweight. The answer has long been linked to the wondrous Mediterranean diet, with its emphasis on fresh fruit and vegetables, fish, and olive oil.
But what about all the pasta?
Particularly since protein-heavy diets have become popular, pasta has become, in popular conception, something of a forbidden food. Largely made of complex carbohydrates, surely it must be the ultimate enemy of a lean body.
But that’s not so, according to a sizable new study. The research, published on July 4 in Nutrition & Diabetes, debunks the presumption, confirming what most Italians, including, famously, Sophia Loren, have known for years: Pasta doesn’t make you fat—in fact it can help you stay lean.
The study looked at 14,402 men and women between the ages of 35 and 79 who were recruited between 2005 and 2010 in Molise, a small region in the center of Italy, plus another 8,964 men and women between 18 and 96 recruited all over the country between 2011 and 2013. Both cohorts were subjects of larger nutritional studies, but this analysis focused on elaborating on the association between pasta intake and the Body Mass Index (BMI) and hip-to-waist ratio of the subjects.
The results were pretty unequivocal. In both the groups, pasta consumption was linked in both women and men of different ages with a lower BMI, smaller waist circumference, and lower waist-to-hip ratio. So long as they weren’t exceeding the recommended nutritional intake based on their overall caloric needs, the more pasta people consumed, the less obese they were.
The reason for the beneficial effects of pasta consumption, the researchers believe, is that it promotes adherence to—guess what—the Mediterranean diet. Eating pasta, the research found, also meant eating “other important food groups […] including tomatoes, tomato sauce, onions, garlic, olive oil, seasoned cheese and rice.”
Licia Iacoviello, who leads the Laboratory of Molecular and Nutritional Epidemiology of Neuromed and is one of the authors of the study, told Quartz this confirms the evidence that the Mediterranean diet “is the diet that determines the better long-term weight reduction.” The “trend of demonizing carbohydrates as opposite to proteins,” she says, is not based on substantial scientific evidence, while low-carb diets may lead people to substitute cereals with meat or animal products, for which “there is ample evidence of negative effects on health.”
Popular high-protein, low-carb diets have caused a decline in pasta consumption even in Italy, the world’s leading producer and consumer of pasta (over 3 million tons produced a year, and 26 kg per capita consumption). But this study shows that isn’t a good thing, as lower pasta consumption may be a proxy for lower adoption of the Mediterranean diet, with loss of the health benefits (particularly cardiovascular benefits) associated with it.
“Our nutritional advice,” Iacoviello said, “is to maintain adherence to the Mediterranean diet, consuming food types proportionally to the pyramid,” which has cereals at the bottom and red meat on top.