Here's a story that would make your Italian grandmother proud: Eating pasta is actually linked with smaller waistlines, according to a study of 23,000 people conducted in (surprise!) Italy.
People who eat pasta tend to have a lower body mass index (BMI), waist and hip circumference, and waist-to-hip ratios, researchers at the IRCCS Neuromed in Pozzilli announced in an Italian-language press release titled "Pasta Is Not Fattening, Indeed." (An English-language writeup of the study is available in the Nature journal Nutrition & Diabetes.)
"We're talking about a fundamental component of Italian Mediterranean cuisine, and there is no reason to do without it," said Licia Iacoviello, the head of Neuromed's Laboratory of Molecular and Nutritional Epidemiology, in the Italian press release (translated via Google Translate.) "The message that emerges from this study, as in other scientific work already emerged in the context of the Moli-sani Project and INHES, is that when [following] the Mediterranean diet, in moderation and in a variety of all its elements, pasta is a benefit to your health."
The analysis of diets and waistlines referenced two existing studies: Moli-sani, a 14,402-person study of people from Italy's Molise region, and INHES, an Italy-wide survey of 8,964 people. The authors analyzed the results of those surveys, compared how much pasta they ate with their waist-to-hip ratio and BMIs, and, after adjusting for variables, found that people who hewed closer to the traditional Mediterranean diet were relatively thinner.
"Consumption of pasta, contrary to what many think, is not associated with an increase in body weight—rather the opposite," lead study author George Pounis said in the press release. "Our data show that enjoying pasta according to individuals’ needs contributes to a healthy body mass index, lower waist circumference and better waist-hip ratio."
A Few Caveats
But before you ladle yourself a heaping bowl of rigatoni alla carbonara, there are a few things we'd like to point out.
First: INHES, one of the studies that the authors referenced, was partially funded by Barilla S.p.A.—which, as any regular visitor of the pasta aisle knows, is a major manufacturer of pasta and pasta sauce. The study was also funded by the Italian government, including the Italian Ministry of Economic Development (MISE), Italian Ministry of University and Research (MIUR), and Pfizer Foundation. But the authors take pains to point out that they were independent from funders, and that funders "had no role in study design, collection, analysis, and interpretation of data." Make of that what you will.
Second: This study was done on Italians, not Americans. Participants in the Moli-sani study were entirely Italian-born people from Molise, a small region of southern Italy known for its rugged frontier culture and landscape. And for the INHES study, participants self-reported their weight, height, waist and hip circumference. That's not to say the data is bad, but rather limited for an American audience, simply because it may not reflect the same conditions that the average supermarket-going American lives in. And while the authors say their results "are in agreement with" a 2012 study of 1,794 middle-aged Americans suggesting that eating pasta is linked with lower BMI, that study could be too small for any sweeping conclusions as well.
Third, and arguably more importantly, understand that the study does not say that eating pasta will make you thinner. (See caveat one, brought to you by Barilla.) In fact, the researchers said that obese people in both Moli-sani and INHES ate more pasta than did normal or merely overweight people. It's just that people in these groups who ate more pasta tended to be less obese, when controlling for other variables.
So What's the Takeaway?
As Professor Iacoviello says, pasta is healthy in proportion as part of a Mediterranean diet, which makes total sense. The Mediterranean diet—one rich in lean meats like fish, healthy fats like olive oil, and plenty of fruits and vegetables—is linked to health benefits from weight management to brain health and reduction in chronic disease risks.
And when done right, pasta is a perfectly healthy option. "Some people have said that any carbohydrate is bad for you, but that’s simply not true, and it’s an unhealthy notion," Dr. Giovanni Campanile, director of the Dean Ornish Intensive Cardiac Rehabilitation Program and the Integrative Nutrition and Integrative Cardiology at the Chambers Center for Well Being, told Men's Fitness back in October. "Whole grains are essential for good health."
So if you're gonna dig in, aim for whole-grain pasta, or try a pasta made with legumes. Better yet, put your culinary skill to the test with these recipes (or switch things up with these non-grain pasta dishes):