Americans love their pasta. In fact, one survey by the National Pasta Association found that 86% of participants reported eating pasta at least once a week. And some of us eat pasta two or three times a week. Because of how frequently we consume pasta, our obsession with spaghetti, penne, rigatoni, ravioli, and their cousins can be problematic when it comes to our blood sugar management—and that’s why you may want to switch out your pasta immediately.
Spaghetti has been nicknamed “string sugar.” A 1-cup serving of cooked spaghetti contains 46 grams of total carbohydrates, most of which are simple carbs that have been stripped of their fiber, resulting in a serving containing less than 3 grams of fiber. For context, one slice of white bread contains 14 grams of carbs and less than a gram of fiber, meaning that a cup of pasta is the equivalent of eating more than 3 slices of white bread.
Like white bread (and other foods largely devoid of dietary fiber like candy and sugar-sweetened beverages), you digest pasta carbs very quickly, causing a fast elevation of your blood sugar. That reaction triggers your body to release insulin, which works to drop your blood sugar, initiating a cycle of more carb cravings. (Do you recall wanting a second helping after eating grandmom’s famous spaghetti?) When the influx of sugar into your bloodstream outpaces insulin’s effectiveness at shuttling glucose into your muscles and tissues, you develop insulin resistance, which increases your risk of developing type 2 diabetes.
Why you need to be concerned about your blood sugar levels and pasta intake
Those 133 million people account for nearly 53% of the total adult population (aged 18 years or older), meaning that 1 in 2 American adults is living with higher-than-normal blood sugar levels.
Whether you’re worried about diabetes or prediabetes, you should have your blood sugar checked and then take steps to reduce it. Changing your diet can help. Reducing your intake of sugars and simple carbohydrates is critical to managing blood sugar and one simple way to do that is to rethink your spaghetti.
If you are eating pasta made with refined flour several times a week in addition to consuming breads, cereals, sodas, crackers, and other sources of refined carbs, chances are good that your blood sugar may remain at an unhealthy high level.
Switch to whole grains to lower your diabetes risk
But you can have your pasta and healthy blood sugar levels, too.
The pasta switch you need to make immediately is to switch to pasta that contains fiber from whole grains as well as reduce your consumption of added sugars and foods made with refined grains and add more whole grain foods to your diet. Making these diet changes may bring your blood sugar down to a healthy level.
Where to find fiber in pasta
Switching to a whole-grain pasta from refined pasta may help shut down your hunger pangs, according to a pilot study of whole-grain pasta’s effect on appetite. The study found that participants reported feeling significantly more full and satisfied after eating a serving of whole grain pasta and also burned more calories after eating as compared to eating the same serving of refined grain pasta.
Adding more whole grain fiber to your daily diet may give you even better results, according to a review of observational studies, clinical trials, and meta-analyses published in the journal Nutrients in 2018. The researchers in that study concluded that people who eat an average of two to three daily servings, or 60 to 90 grams, of whole grains have a 21 to 32% reduction in the incidence of type 2 diabetes than people who rarely or never eat whole grains.
In a similar examination of three large studies involving 158,259 women and 36,525 men published in 2020 in The BMJ, researchers from Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health found that higher consumption of whole grains was significantly associated with lower risk of type 2 diabetes.
Read nutrition labels of offerings in the pasta aisle of your supermarket. Look for pasta that packs at least 4 grams of fiber. Also, look for high protein since protein, like fiber, slows digestion, reducing the pasta’s carbohydrate impact on your blood sugar, says Eatthis.com medical review board member and registered dietitian Amy Goodson, MS, RD. One top-notch product she recommends is Barilla Protein + Pasta. Made with whole grain flours like semolina, duram wheat, barley, and spelt, along with lentil and chickpea flours, plus pea protein, this pasta delivers 4 grams of fiber and 10 grams of protein per serving. “Bonus: Two of the four grams of fiber are soluble fiber, which is known to help lower bad and total cholesterol,” says Goodson.
Another healthy pasta Goodson recommends is Banza Pasta, made from chickpea flour. Banza packs more protein and fiber than your average pasta—11 grams of protein and 5 grams of fiber per serving. “To help flatten the blood sugar curve even more, add a lean protein to your pasta dish,” says Goodson.