Why Do Athletes Eat Pasta?

Athlete eating pasta

A case for carbohydrates

Fun fact, although our brain is only 2% of our total body weight, yet it consumes nearly a third of our calorie intake. Exclusively relying on glucose to function properly.

 Fruits, vegetables, bread, and pasta are a few sources of carbohydrates, also known as “carbs”. These carbs are important for maintaining glycogen, and store and provide the body with much-needed energy.

Nowadays, the so-called social media influencers have successfully managed to put the fear of “carbs” in all of us. Almost all weight loss videos recommend you cut out carbs. Carbohydrates have a bad reputation of causing sluggishness and slowing down our body’s fat-burning process. Well we say, not all carbs are bad carbs!

The past three decades have advocated eating foods high in protein and healthy fat while reducing or eliminating the intake of carbs. Although high protein and low carb diets can help with short-term weight loss, cutting out carbs can be of consequence for athletes and active individuals.

Science says the body converts carbs into glucose, a type of sugar that all kinds of organisms, including bacteria, use for energy.

Simple carbohydrates, found in foods like fruit and milk, can be converted into glucose quickly for powerful but short bursts of energy while slower-burning complex carbohydrates found in foods such as rice, potatoes, and whole-grain pasta, take longer to become an energy source.

Is Pasta bad for you?

Traditionally made from durum wheat, water, or eggs. The dough of the pasta is then formed into different noodle shapes and cooked in boiling water. Since pasta is high in carbohydrates, which can be bad for you when consumed in large amounts, we often consider it a “cheat meal” or simply never indulge in it.

According to a survey of the eating habits of 23,000 Italians, it was found that pasta did not correlate to waist size or BMI among those studied.

Here are some facts that you do not know about pasta!

Carbohydrates like pasta provide glucose, a very important fuel for your muscles and brain. Pasta is also very low in sodium and cholesterol-free so if you are watching your cholesterol levels and have no idea what to eat, a bowl of pasta is perfect for you.

A single cup of pasta can provide a good source of several essential nutrients, including iron and B-vitamins. 

According to research, serving dry pasta supplies the equivalent of roughly 100 micrograms of folic acid or 25% of the recommended daily intake. Women of child-bearing age can also benefit from eating enriched pasta as it contains folic acid.

Why do athletes have pasta?

Nutrition for all athletes is just as important as training. Overlooking it can have a significant impact on their overall performance. Carbohydrates play an essential role in the diet of athletes, be it professional or amateur athletes.

 “Carbohydrate needs increase with increasing weekly hours and intensity of training. For the general population, carbohydrate need is approximately 2-3 grams per kilogram of body weight. For athletes, it is three times more (6-10g per kilogram). And it is even higher for marathon runners, triathletes, cyclists, and long-distance swimmers (10-12 grams per kilogram in the days before the competition)” says Michelangelo Giampietro, the health director of the Italian team at the 2016 Olympic Games.

Kelly Hogan, a registered dietician, and nutritionist also confirm that pasta in moderation is not bad for anyone. “Athletes, especially endurance athletes such as long-distance runners, should not shy away from foods with carbohydrates. They really do fuel their training and racing. A productive pre-race pasta dinner will give their body enough carbs to store some for later use.”

Keri Gans, a dietician, and nutritionist based in New York say, “The more you are running, the more carbs you need to fuel that run. Those (athletes) who are eliminating carbs from their diets are basically affecting their performance.

She also states that this case is especially true for those who are not “fat-adapted,” Athletes with bodies that have trouble transitioning from carb-burning to fat burning. These types of athletes are likely to “crash” as they face difficulty finding energy once their carb supply is depleted.

Pasta is also a rich source of protein which helps your body build and maintain lean muscle mass. 

The average player needs about 70plus grams of carbohydrates in their pre-game meal which equals 2 cups of pasta. Pair this with some tomato sauce, chicken, and veggies and you are good to go!

The good news for all sportspersons is that in order to reach their peak performance they need not have a special diet or use supplements to enhance performance. Working the right foods in the right amounts into their fitness plan is the key!

Should athletes have a pregame meal?

The answer is a big YES!

According to Nancy Clark’s Nutrition Guidebook, the most important reason for eating well before an event is to prevent hypoglycemia (low blood sugar) and its symptoms such as fatigue, muscle weakness, blurred vision, dizziness, and nausea.

Having a good meal the night before settles the stomach by absorbing gastric juices and avoiding the distraction of hunger. It also aids muscle glycogen( an essential fuel for intense exercise) to store maximal energy.

Indulging in a pasta dish is also the best way to recover after a tough workout. After intense exercise, the glycogen stored in our bodies depletes and pasta is one of the best sources for remedying that. It ensures that the muscles recover, and the person has enough fuel for the following day.

Finding the right kind of pasta

Regular pasta is made from refined flour, such as wheat flour. While enriched pasta tends to be higher in vitamin B and iron, whole-grain pasta is typically high in fiber, selenium, copper, phosphorus, and manganese.

Since regular pasta is made by stripping the grain of its bran and germ (which gives the flour a finer texture) the nutritional content of the grain is altered. Whole-grain pasta on the other hand is made from flour as well, but the grain is not as highly processed. Most of the bran and germ are retained in whole-grain pasta, giving it a different flavor and texture.

A study showed that when compared to refined pasta, whole-grain pasta can lower appetite and increase the feeling of fullness due to the undigested fiber moving through the gastrointestinal tract.

Since whole-grain pasta contains the bran and the germ of the grain, having a hearty bowl can contribute to your dietary fiber needs. Your body can get 6 grams of fiber from a serving of whole-wheat spaghetti and only 2.5 grams of fiber from regular pasta. We recommend you choose wisely.

How much is too much?

Now that we have established that eating a proper meal the night before helps an athlete perform well, gorging on spaghetti the night before a race is also unwise. Last-minute carbo-loading could lead to gastrointestinal distress and discomfort. 

Runners are recommended to consume about 4 grams of carbs per pound of body weight over the two to three days before a long run. 

It is also important that your pasta dish does not have a cream sauce but is a very simple tomato-based sauce, with lean meat or legumes. These very fancy pasta dishes are not considered ideal for a pre-race meal because their fat and fiber content could lead to stomach issues and feelings of heaviness during the race.

Nowadays pre-race dinners have become a tradition, you can read about the Boston Marathon that hosts sponsored dinners of penne marinara, mac, and cheese (also known as pre-race favorites). 

New York City marathoners are known to enjoy a meal or two from Tavern on the Green the night before the race.

Finding the right balance

Pasta can and should be eaten in reasonable amounts. According to a study, pasta should account for 10% of daily calorie requirements: On average, 70 grams a day for men and 55 grams a day for women. 

In today’s day and age maintaining a healthy balanced diet is not an easy task. Knowing and understanding food should be prioritized instead of blindly following fad diets. As mentioned earlier, pasta alone in reasonable amounts is not bad for you but a high-carb diet can have a harmful impact on your body in the long run. This kind of diet has been linked to numerous health conditions, including:

  • Diabetes: Some studies have shown that high-carb diets may be associated with an increased risk of developing diabetes.
  • Obesity: Eating foods with a higher glycemic index could lead to a higher body weight. A higher glycemic index increases the risk of type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease and even cancer.
  • Metabolic syndrome: Also known as syndrome X,  people who consume a high amount of carbs from starchy foods are over twice as likely to develop a metabolic syndrome or conditions that increase your risk of heart disease.

Like everything else in life, moderation is key when it comes to pasta. Whether you are an active individual, or an athlete wanting to shed a few pounds or build strength, denying yourself some pasta is not the answer. 

We understand how easy it is to be fooled by readily available dietary plans recommended by non-verified sources which is why we recommend you find what works for your body and keep in mind, health is wealth. 

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