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Shocker: Italian Study Finds That Pasta Makes You Thinner

[Photo: Jorge Zapata via Unsplash]

Pasta, say Italian scientists, isn’t "fattening." In fact, says a study published in the journal Nutrition & Diabetes, pasta actually makes you thinner and less prone to obesity.

The study was carried out as a part of Italy’s Moli-Sani project, a long-term, large-scale study of 25,000 people in the Molise region of south-central Italy. The Moli-Sani project studies health as affected by both genetics and environment (the Molise region was chosen because it has a mix of diets, lifestyles, and terrains, from sea to mountain). Participants are contacted every three years to track their progress. Another source was the Italian Nurses' Health Study.

"We have seen that consumption of pasta, contrary to what many think, is not associated with an increase in body weight, rather the opposite," lead author George Pounis said in a press release.

The study consisted of 14,402 participants each recording their own diets and a series of telephone interviews to train the participants. Their reported diets were transformed into actual weights of various foods and raw ingredients, and then pasta consumption was calculated in grams per day.

Participants’ weight, height, waist, and hip circumference were also measured, or self-reported, and their level of physical activity assessed. The results showed that as a part of the traditional Mediterranean diet, eating pasta isn't all that bad: "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."

However, it’s not quite as simple as that. The researchers actually found that pasta consumption did correlate with a higher BMI. But they massaged the results, because "underreporting of energy intake was evident in obese women participants." And when the "methodology was elaborated to overcome related bias?" Surprisingly, "the association changed direction from positive to negative."

You might also question the validity of recording an individual’s entire diet, and then picking on just one part of that to get your study’s results. This exaggeration will make the point: imagine two people, one of whom consumes a little pasta each day, along with a ton of sugary drinks and candy bars. The other eats quite a lot of pasta, along with fresh vegetables, fruit, and legumes. The first person is overweight, and doesn't eat much pasta. The second is healthy, has a kick-ass BMI, and eats quite a lot of pasta. You can hardly conclude that pasta makes you thin, or even contributes to a healthy diet from that.

This study isn’t quite like that, but the example makes it easy to see how useless it is to look at one aspect of diet and lifestyle and draw such broad conclusions. It’s especially dodgy when that one aspect—pasta—is so intertwined with the national identity. To quote from the study’s press release. Here’s Licia Iacoviello, head of the Neuromed Institute, where the study was carried out:

In popular views, pasta is often considered not adequate when you want to lose weight. And some people completely ban it from their meals. In light of this research, we can say that this is not a correct attitude. We're talking about a fundamental component of Italian Mediterranean tradition, and there is no reason to do without it.

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