New research finds pasta is the secret performance enhancer
Most of us are probably aware by now that carbs are no longer the terrifying enemy (and if you weren’t, you can thank me later).
But what you may not realise is that one of the most popular varieties, pasta, has not only been given the tick of approval health-wise but is now considered an essential part of the diet for athletes, both amateur and professional.
According to new research from the International Pasta Organisation (IPO), pasta – either eaten before training or with other foods after a gym session – can provide essential proteins and subsequently help improve performance.
Speaking at the 2015 Scientific Consensus Conference on the Healthy Pasta Meal in Rome, organised by not-for-profit organisation Oldways, Dr Michelangelo Giampietro from Sapienza University and formerly associated with the Sports Science Institute of the Italian National Olympic Committee (CONI) stated that a pasta-rich Mediterranean diet could easily replace all the extra supplements normally used by athletes.
“Pasta is a great source of complex carbohydrates and is highly recommended for athletes,” says Dr Giampietro.
“With the Mediterranean Diet, athletes have no need for supplements. I am of the opinion that pasta has probably contributed positively to the success and medals of many athletes, for sure the Italian ones.”
Incidentally, this isn’t the first time that carbs, specifically pasta, have been praised as being beneficial as opposed to the ultimate sin that Paleo fans may suggest it is.
An Italian study published in the Nutrition and Diabetes Journal earlier this year (2016) showed that people who regularly ate pasta were found to have a lower body mass index (BMI) and smaller waist-to-hip ratio than those who abstained from its carb-y goodness.
Fuel for thought
According to the findings presented by Giampetro and the IPO, there are several reasons why pasta should be worked into the diet of anyone seeking to give their athletic performance a bit of a boost:
- Pasta is a slow-burning, complex carbohydrate, which serves as the body’s main fuel source. It metabolises to glucose and produces long-lasting energy, particularly during athletic activity
- It’s easily digestible and doesn’t cause gastrointestinal distress if eaten before a race or high-intensity workout
- Pasta also scores low on the Glycemic Index, meaning it typically won’t cause blood sugar levels to rise quickly, unlike white breads, potatoes and rice.
Admittedly, the fact that the study was funded by a group that clearly have an invested interest in getting people to eat pasta may seem a little shady. But all this data does give credence to the long-held practice of “carb loading” before a big sporting event like a marathon.
Carb dumping, or pre-loading, is a common strategy used by athletes to maximise muscle glycogen (carbohydrate) stores prior to endurance competition.
According to the Australian Institute of Sports, this extra boost of carbohydrate “has been demonstrated to improve endurance exercise by allowing athletes to exercise at their optimal pace for a longer time”.
In fact, a decent serving of pasta with some lean meat and vegetables the night before a big game or a long run was shown to help increase performance by up to three per cent. Which may not sound like much, but if you’ve ever lost a race by a third of a second then that extra fuel can make all the difference.
Which is great news if, like myself, your partial to the odd bowl of al dente penne. But it doesn’t give you carte blanche to whack any old carb in the proverbial cupboard.
Good carbs vs bad carbs
You see, unfortunately, not all carbs are good ones. Complex carbs like those found in starchy vegetables and whole grains take longer to break down, and thus stall the release of sugars into the body.
The real enemy is what’s known as refined carbs – aka the sort found in doughnuts, chips and pastries. Refined carbohydrates can cause insulin spikes and your blood sugar to go through the roof and regularly eating them can lead to everything from heart disease to obesity – the exact opposite effect of eating complex carbohydrates.
But before you go and help yourself to that second bowl of spaghetti, it’s probably important to highlight that pasta’s benefits are really felt when combined with regular exercise.
As a slow-burning fuel, they’re perfect for giving you some extra oomph to your weight session or beat a PB in a marathon.
However, you may not get the same great results if your only physical activity is stirring the pot you’re cooking it in.
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