Wednesday, February 1, 2017

Food Politics and History: Pasta, Weight Loss, and The Dietary Guidelines

Note:  This article was originally published at, read the original article here

Recently, there was an Italian study that was paid for by pasta brand, Barilla ( The study reported that pasta can help you lose weight. How, you ask? It’s not from eating as much pasta as you can, if that’s what you were thinking.

Although, the news headlines about this study have been boasting that pasta helps people lose weight, the study did not advocate a quick fix of a diet consisting only of pasta, nor say that eating pasta on its own facilitates weight loss. ( The study showed that when pasta is a part of a balanced diet, specifically a Mediterranean diet, it can be healthy.

The Mediterranean diet calls for moderate amounts of lean animal proteins, some plant-based proteins, and lots of fruit and vegetables. This means that the weight control seen in the study could have resulted from the previously mentioned factors, rather than pasta consumption alone. Secondly, the greatest amount of pasta that the participants ate was 3 ounces, which is enough pasta to fit into one hand and is less than the 4 ounce serving that the USDA recommends eating per meal ( In other words, this was technically a carbohydrate restricted, or low-carb, diet.

In agreement with the study, pasta is good for you in moderate amounts. Pasta is not good for you in excess. The science in this study does not prove that eating more pasta will help you lose weight; it is saying that it is okay to include pasta in a balanced diet.

The body of research upon which the nutrition industry is founded is vast. Dietitians have been recommending balanced diets for decades. A balanced diet includes carbohydrates. Pasta contains carbohydrates. A single study that found that pasta is not necessarily detrimental to your health does not change anything about what dietitians have been recommending and will continue to recommend.

It is currently accepted that most adults need 6 – 10 servings of grains per day. One serving is the same as about 4 ounces of cooked pasta, ½ a cup of cereal, or one slice of bread. This portion size is about the size of your fist.

The reality is that general nutrition guidelines have changed only a little since the 1970s. Even at the conception of nutrition as a field of study, scientists were advocating for a balanced diet consisting of a balance of macronutrients (proteins, carbohydrates, fats) and foods that are rich in fiber, vitamins, and minerals (fruits and vegetables). The first published dietary guidelines by the USDA was a Farmers’ Bulletin written in 1894 by W.O. Atwater. He suggested that American males eat a balance of protein, carbohydrate, fat, and “mineral matter” (specific minerals and vitamins had not been identified at that time). Atwater emphasized the importance of eating a variety of foods in moderation with proper proportions. This is still what we understand as true dietary advice today.

“Unless care is exercised in selecting food, a diet may result which is one-sided or badly balanced—that is, one in which either protein or fuel ingredients (carbohydrate and fat) are provided in excess… The evils of overeating may not be felt at once, but sooner or later they are sure to appear—perhaps in an excessive amount of fatty tissue, perhaps in general debility, perhaps in actual disease.” W.O. Atwater stated the previous in a paper published in 1902.

In the 1930s, the depression influenced the dietary guidelines. During the depression, getting in enough calories for one’s family became an important priority. This was also before the proliferation of industrialized food systems. Thus, eating excessive amounts of fats and sugars was not an issue at the inception of the dietary guidelines.

After the depression and as nutrition research became more in depth, the dietary guidelines began to change starting in the 1940s and continuing to the 1970s. Since the 1970s, the way these guidelines have been communicated to the public has changed over time based upon the way the public’s eating habits have changed.

Let’s take a look at how our dietary guidelines have changed over time:

1940s: A Guide to Good Eating (Basic Seven)


The wartime version of the Basic Seven was intended to help people cope with limited supplies of certain foods during the war. In 1946, a new food guide was produced that suggested fewer fats and sugars.

In 1956, a guide called “Food for Fitness, A Daily Food Guide (Basic Four)” recommended 2 servings of dairy, 2 servings of protein, 4 servings of fruit or vegetables, and 4 or more servings of carbohydrates.  By the 1940s, a set of Recommended Dietary Allowances (RDA’s) had been released. The RDA’s listed specific recommendations for calories, protein, and certain vitamins and minerals (iron, calcium, vitamin A and D, thiamin, riboflavin, niacin, and ascorbic acid).
Since the 1950s, serving recommendations have increased, but the basic principle of having a balanced diet remains the same. The “Basic Four” food guide was in use until 1979.
In the 1970s, there was a growing body of research that showed that certain nutrients, like fat, saturated fats, cholesterol, and sodium were linked to an increased risk of chronic diseases, such as heart disease and stroke. A new food guide was released in 1979 that advocated for reduced intake of fats, sugary foods, and alcoholic beverages in an effort to warn the public about the risks of chronic disease.

In 1984, a food wheel was released that is similar to today’s diet recommendations. This food wheel recommended 6-11 servings of grains or carbohydrate rich foods, 2-4 servings of fruit, 3-5 servings of vegetables, 2-3 servings of protein rich foods, 2 servings of dairy, and consumption of fats, sweets, and alcohol in moderation.
The dietary recommendations featured in “The Food Wheel” have stayed the same since 1984, although the way that we demonstrate these ideas to the public have changed. In 1992, the Food Guide Pyramid was created. This was a more visually appealing way to display daily dietary needs to the American public.

In 2005, the Food Guide pyramid was changed to the MyPyramid that showed the food groups according to colors, but did not detail the number of servings individuals needed of each group per day. Because this illustration proved confusing, the USDA revised the diagram into a “MyPlate” that described how big a portion of each food group should look on a plate. The MyPlate put into concrete terms what our balanced diet should look like at meal times. Since specific serving sizes and daily needs should be individualized based on height, weight, body frame, and fitness level, this is an accurate tool for showing the American public how their plate should look.

As you can see, 3 ounces of pasta at a meal time, is within the guidelines for a healthy diet as we currently understand it. The new Italian pasta study did not change our current body of research. The pasta study blends in with our current understanding of nutrition.



Sheena Pradhan is a Registered Dietitian-Nutritionist that specializes in wellness and sports nutrition. She runs the private practice called Nutritious Balance. Nutrition and fitness is her passion. She learned to use her knowledge of nutrition as a model, former semi-pro triathlete, and former beauty queen. Today, she loves using her knowledge to help her clients live happier and healthier lives and to reach their performance goals. Sheena has been published in the Huffington Post and is a regular contributor to and Brown Girl Magazine. She has consulted for Seventeen Magazine, ZeeTV, Rogers TV, and DNAinfo. As a model, Sheena has been featured in campaigns by Laura Mercier, Yotel, G.H. Mumm, 123 Glow, East Point Sports, and has modeled swimwear on national television multiple times for Fox and Friends.

Sheena can be found on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter.