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Stop hating on pasta — it actually has a healthy ratio of carbs, protein and fat

New year, new you, new diet. It’s a familiar refrain. One popular dieting technique is to create a food blacklist. Quitting “carbs” or packaged foods is common, which can mean avoiding supermarket staples like pasta.

But do we really need to ban pasta to improve our diets?

This is what we call a reductionist approach to nutrition, where we describe a food based on just one of its key components. Pasta isn’t just carbs. One cup (about 145 grams) of pasta has about 38g of carbohydrates, 7.7g of protein and 0.6g of fat. Plus, there’s all the water that is absorbed from cooking and lots of vitamins and minerals.

“But pasta is mostly carbs!” I hear you cry. This is true, but it’s not the whole story. We need to think about context.

Your day on a plate

You probably know there are recommendations for how much energy (kilojoules or calories) we should eat in a day. These recommendations are based on body size, sex and physical activity. But you might not realize there are also recommendations about the profile of macronutrients — or types of food — that supply this energy.

Fats, carbs and proteins are macronutrients. Macronutrients are broken down in the body to produce energy for our bodies.

A bowl of hand rolled pici pasta in a tomato and garlic sauce, topped with grated cheese.  A vegetarian meal.
Pasta really is better the next day. Leftovers are lower in calories when cooled and reheated.(ABC Everyday: Julia Busuttil Nishimura)

Acceptable Macronutrient Distribution Ranges describe the ratio or percentage of macronutrients that should provide this energy. These ranges are set by experts based on health outcomes and models of healthy eating. They aim to make sure we get enough, but not too much, of each macro. Consuming too much or too little of any type of food can have consequences for health.

The ratios are also designed to make sure we get enough of the vitamins and minerals that come with the energy in the foods we typically eat. We should get 45–65 per cent of our energy from carbohydrates, 10–30 per cent from proteins, and 20–35 per cent from fats.

mangia pasta

Macronutrient ratios mean it can be healthy to eat up to between 1.2 and 6.5 times more carbohydrates in a day than protein — since each gram of protein has the same amount of energy as a gram of carbohydrates.

The ratio of carbs to protein in pasta is 38g to 7.7g, which equates to roughly a 5:1 ratio, well within the acceptable macronutrient distribution range. Meaning pasta actually has enough protein to balance with the carbohydrates. This isn’t just because of the eggs in pasta either. Wheat is another source of protein, making up about 20 percent of the proteins eaten globally.

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