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Via Elisa in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution

A Closer look at Carbs

By CAROLYN O'NEIL
For Cox News Service
Wednesday, January 30, 2008

ATLANTA — Have you heard the joke about "the pasta diet"?

It goes like this. You walk "pasta" the doughnut shop. You walk "pasta" the candy store. You walk "pasta" the ice cream parlor. You lose weight. Pretty silly; but as with most good comedy, it's based on the truth. And, despite a recent bad reputation, it's probably not the pasta that's making you fat.

All carbs got hit pretty hard in recent years, identified as the culprits in weight gain because of the way the digestive system quickly absorbs their energy. The argument goes that carbohydrate calories more easily convert into body fat.

Recently, that dietary advice was fine-tuned a bit to encourage choosing whole-grain versions dubbed "quality carbs" such as brown rice, whole-grain breads and whole-wheat pastas. That's because the fiber in whole-grain foods slows down absorption a bit, therefore tempering or preventing the sugar rush blamed for body fat deposition.

A food's individual effect on blood sugar is scored by the glycemic index, developed by researchers at the University of Toronto. The higher the GI score, the greater the effect on elevating blood sugar.

So, where does that leave fettuccine cloaked in a meaty Bolognese sauce? Or hand-tucked tortellini stuffed with ricotta and roasted leeks? Grab a fork and read on.

Pasta 101

Sharing is good. When a pasta dish is so intensely good, you only need a small plate to satisfy a craving. Those huge platters of pasta served at some Italian-American eateries as an entree for one are definitely not advised if you're trying to stay trim. Portion control is just the first lesson in learning how to add pasta to a healthy diet.

What's in the pasta? The second lesson is about ingredients. Respect for the highest-quality pasta preparation and enjoyment is the driving force behind Elisa Gambino's Atlanta-based Via Elisa Fresh Pasta. Gambino, who was a producer for CNN in Rome, began a new career in 2002 reproducing the pasta she had enjoyed in Italy.

"I use 100 percent organic semolina flour and eggs from free-range hens. It makes a huge difference in the taste and texture of the pastas," she said. "The best pastas are silky."

Interestingly, there's a surprising win-win for taste and health when you carefully examine the properties of pasta ingredients. Coarsely ground semolina flour, which is made from the highest-grade durum hard wheat, cooks up firmer than pastas made with soft-wheat flour. Because the starch particles in semolina pastas are larger, they are not absorbed as quickly. Finely ground grain is more rapidly digested, and so it has a higher glycemic index than more coarsely ground grain.

Pasta dough made with more egg solids, as with Gambino's Italian method, will have more protein and some fat in the mix, so it will have a lower glycemic effect, too. Another nutrition note: Dried pasta cooked as recommended al dente (when there's a light resistance when bitten into) has a lower glycemic index ranking than pasta boiled until soft and mushy. So, score one more for cooking pasta properly.

Partner with vegetables

While individual foods may be measured alone in nutrition labs to learn their glycemic ranking, they are rarely eaten alone. And, according to Dr. Xavier Pi-Sunyer of the Obesity Research Center of St. Luke's — Roosevelt Hospital Center, Columbia University, that can change things.

"Response to a carbohydrate food varies with the amount of fat, protein or both with which it is ingested," he said. Therefore, spaghetti with meat balls would have a lower glycemic ranking than spaghetti alone. This combination effect on blood sugar levels is measured by the "glycemic load," which nutritionists find much more useful. Order a fiber-rich garden salad with your spaghetti and meatballs, and the glycemic load could fall even further. So, primavera pastas served with fiber-containing vegetables or raviolis stuffed with mushrooms are a good choice, too.

It's also interesting to note that the more fat or acid a dish contains, the slower its carbohydrates are converted into sugar and absorbed into the bloodstream. So, adding vinegar and olive oil to a cold pasta salad or tossing angel hair with a simple saute of crushed tomatoes will lower the dish's glycemic ranking. Ditto fresh lemon squeezed on lemon pappardelle.

Gambino may not be thinking about its ultimate healthy effect on blood sugar levels as she prepares her Passionately Perfect Tomato Sauce with Italian plum tomatoes (acid), extra-virgin olive oil (fat), sauteed carrots and celery (fiber), but her mission to create the ultimate flavor experiences for pasta lovers is a living lesson in the healthiest ways to enjoy these foods, too.

So, there's no reason to walk "pasta" her shop.

Carolyn O'Neil is a registered dietitian and co-author of "The Dish on Eating Healthy and Being Fabulous!"

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