February 11, 1995 in Nation/World

Italians Think We’re Off Our Noodle With Pasta Alarms They Scoff At U.S. Worries Linking Pasta To Obesity

Frances D'Emilio Associated Press

The warning made front-page headlines. Cafe customers buzzed about it. Experts came on lunch-time TV to calm Italians just as they were sitting down for their daily serving of pasta.

For Italians, a suggestion by American nutritionists that pasta can be bad for you has been harder to swallow than mushy macaroni.

“The whole thing is so ridiculous,” the head of the Italian Dieticians’ Society, Eugenio Del Toma, said on RAI state television.

Del Toma appeared on the national news to talk about arguments by U.S. experts that starchy foods might contribute to obesity.

The experts were quoted in a frontpage article in Wednesday’s New York Times to the immediate alarm of U.S.-based Italian newspaper correspondents.

“America, You Don’t Understand Pasta,” was the headline over a frontpage commentary in Thursday’s La Stampa, a nationwide daily.

The Times article focused on concerns that a diet heavy on carbohydrates might be bad for the overweight, particularly for those whose bodies tend to overproduce insulin after eating sugar or starches. “Byebye pasta. It’s been fun,” the Times wrote.

“The more insulin your body produces the more likely it is that you will convert dietary calories into body fat,” the paper quoted Dr. Dean Ornish, the author of “Eat More, Weigh Less.”

Italians counter that Americans just need to learn how to eat.

“Americans ought to just think about giving up eating mindlessly - about quitting stuffing themselves four times a day with mountains of hot dogs and toppings,” Giorgio Calabrese, who teaches nutrition at Catholic University of the Sacred Heart in Piacenza, told La Stampa.

Gianni Lucozzi serves up platefuls of spaghetti with clams, linguini al pesto, penne with tuna and other dishes to elbow-to-elbow lunchtime crowds at the Napoleone Bar, near busy Piazza Venezia. He scoffed at the notion that pasta could lead to obesity.

“Customers come here and tell me `I’m on a diet - I’ll just have pasta today,”’ Lucozzi said.

After poking fun at the U.S. pasta theory, state television was quick to recognize that talk about insulin might worry Italians who commonly eat pasta once or twice a day and who lately have heard lots of reassuring talk about the benefits of a Mediterranean diet - pasta, bread, lots of fruits and vegetables and olive oil.

RAI asked, for example, if it was dangerous for diabetics to eat pasta. Del Toma replied that a small dish of it once a day would be fine - “just avoid truck-driver-sized portions.”

This isn’t the first time Italians have turned defensive about pasta. When a U.S. study not too long ago denounced the calories in fettuccine Alfredo, Italians were quick to point out that that dish, smothered with heavy cream sauce, was invented to satisfy American tastes.

Many Americans wouldn’t even recognize what’s served in trattorias here. Pasta is more likely to be topped by steamed green or yellow vegetables, like chard, zucchini or broccoli, than heavy sauces.

Thoughts and opinions on this story? Click here to comment >>

Get stories like this in a free daily email