23 October 2006

Is pasta making you fat?

Pasta has been the mainstay cycling fuel for generations. It contains 27g of carbs per 1⁄2 cup serving, 589kJ, and 1,6g of fibre and minimal fat. Pasta is your ally. Or is it?

Pasta has been the mainstay cycling fuel for generations. It contains 27g of carbs per 1⁄2 cup serving, 589 kilojoules, and 1,6g of fibre and minimal fat. Pasta is dependable. Pasta is inexpensive. Pasta is pre-race. Pasta is post-race. Pasta is carbo-loading. Pasta is your ally. Or is it?

We know that exercise helps lower insulin resistance, steadies blood-sugar levels and helps keep off unwanted kilos. Yet, the recent bad press about high-carb diets even has some athletes worrying – what’s behind the criticism?

The common factor here seems to be ‘insulin’. And it’s true that for some people, a diet rich in carbs will boost circulating levels of this hormone. More insulin means that more carbs get converted into fat, which is then tucked away in your body’s fat cells.

But does this hold true for everyone?

Insulin explained
Insulin plays a pivotal role in energy metabolism. After you eat carbs, glucose (a sugar) surges into the bloodstream. (Remember that most carbs – from pasta to sweets – contain glucose.)

In response, the pancreas release insulin, which then gives the sugar entry into muscle cells and elsewhere so it can be burned as fuel. Insulin’s action returns blood-sugar levels to normal, and the cycle starts all over again the next time you eat.

However, for some, a glitch in the process occurs. This is called ‘insulin resistance’. For reasons not completely understood, the fat cells in these people don’t respond adequately to insulin’s signal to take up the sugar.

As a result, blood-sugar levels stay elevated, which forces the pancreas to produce more insulin. This extra insulin eventually normalises blood sugar levels, but not before the liver has begun to process a portion of the sugar into fat – and this gets stored as body fat.

As these body fat cells get larger and become saturated, they become less responsive to insulin. So, the resistance increases, and the unhealthy cycle continues.

Many overweight people suffer from insulin resistance and the health problems that often come with it. Chronically elevated blood-sugar levels can lead to diabetes and can accelerate the development of heart disease, stroke and high blood pressure.

This brings us to the bad press against high-carb diets. Some believe such diets exacerbate the insulin-resistance problem by continually pushing up glucose levels in the bloodstream. But that does not seem to be entirely true.

To lose weight, you first have to cut back on kilojoules, follow a balanced diet and increase your activity level. Simple as that.

The good news
Exercise, especially cycling, changes the insulin story in a big way – and for the better. Regular cycling helps fight insulin resistance by pulling fat out of storage for use as fuel, which decreases the size of fat cells.

The body adapts to cycling by fine-tuning insulin’s action and more effectively burning incoming carbs for energy rather than converting them into stored fat. Since muscles burn carbs (and fat) as fuel, it just makes sense that circulating sugar can more easily get into muscles when needed.

In this way, exercise lowers the dose of insulin needed to get carbs into cells, so less insulin is secreted when you eat.

Use your noodle
For now, don’t rely solely on pasta for you daily carbs. Reach for other fibre-rich carbs such as vegetables, fruits and whole grains. These foods release sugar more slowly into the bloodstream than sweets, cakes and biscuits do, so insulin surges are less dramatic.

Cyclists should stick to a diet that includes enough carbs to support performance, around 55-70 percent of total kilojoules. Research shows that this level of carbs is best for rebuilding spent muscle glycogen stores. Keep going with those pre-race pasta dinners.

And concerning weight control, remember the following: keep kilojoule intake in check. An excess of anything – fat, carbs or protein – can be turned into unwanted body fat. So, the verdict on pasta is that it’s innocent until proven guilty.

However, if you’re cycling regularly, yet struggling to lose weight, ask your GP to investigate whether or not you may be suffering from insulin resistance.

GI of some South African pasta
The glycaemic index (GI) is an indicator of the effect a carbohydrate food has on the body. It describes the rate at which carbohydrate is digested, and its influence on blood sugar. Low-GI foods are digested and absorbed slowly and glucose is released into the bloodstream over a long period.

This may extend endurance and allow for a longer exercise session or improved performance in an endurance event. High-GI foods are digested and absorbed quickly and raise blood sugar levels rapidly over a short period of time. They can be used during or after an event to provide energy fast.

Low-GI pasta (eat prior to your ride, while carbo-loading): macaroni (durum wheat), Mr. Pasta macaroni and spaghetti, Pasta Grande macaroni and spaghetti, spaghetti (whole wheat), pasta (durum-wheat variety), pasta, fettuccini, egg, (durum wheat).

Intermediate-GI pasta (eat prior to and after your ride): Sasko (durum wheat) macaroni and spaghetti, spaghetti (cooked).

High-GI pasta (eat after your ride): pasta (wheat flour).

Top toppings
The healthy benefits of pasta can be undone by your choice of topping. Here are some good options:

  • Simple tomato sauce (check the label – low fat is less than 3g of fat/100g of tomato sauce).
  • Spicy tomato, garlic, and olive oil based sauces.
  • Spaghetti al la norma (tomatoes and eggplant).
  • Pasta con le sarde (fresh sardines, pine nuts, fennel and olive oil).
  • If you want vegetables, add them yourself – even though the label says it’s a vegetable sauce, they are not necessarily there in any large, readily recognisable pieces.

Obscure statistic: It is estimated that Italians eat over 27kg of pasta per person, per year, easily beating Americans, who eat about 9kg per person.

- (Bicycling, October 2006)

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