Eat as much Rice and Pasta as you want!

A tale of misinformation.

Recently, I came across a newspaper article which was shown to me by a client of mine. The title of the article was – “Lose weight by eating as much rice and potatoes as you want — no, really.” That sounds really good doesn’t it? Almost too good. Really though, you can eat as much rice and potatoes until your heart’s content…..according to this article.

I will give you a quick summary of the article to give CONTEXT to what it is I’m about to say. Essentially, the article refers to a study that was conducted where researchers looked at 2 groups of participants. The first group followed what is known as the Slimming World eating program. This “diet” is very popular in the U.K. The premise of the Slimming World program is eating normal, everyday foods you would find at the grocery store. The second group simply restricted their daily caloric intake to 1400 calories.  The group that followed the Slimming World program lost an average of 13 pounds over a 14-week span, while the group that restricted their caloric intake only saw an average loss of 7 pounds over the same 14-week time period.

If you wish to read the article yourself, here is the link:

http://torontosun.com/health/lose-weight-by-eating-as-much-rice-and-potatoes-as-you-want-no-really/wcm/b8f04477-9173-4d2e-adef-a28748c26641

It’s a very quick read, but also chalk-full of misleading information….which I’m about to get too shortly.

Firstly, before moving on, I feel as though I need to provide a little more information about this Slimming World eating program. The program has people eating normal food they find at the grocery store with no hidden catch to it. They categorize all foods into three categories:

1 – Free Food

2 – Healthy Extras

3 – Sins

Basically, you can take any food and it will fall into one of the three categories. They classify free foods as everyday foods. Examples include: lean meat, fish, eggs, pasta, potatoes, fruit, and vegetables. According to the Slimming World website “they’re filling and low in calories for their weight – so you can eat as much as you like without counting or weighing.” I assume that when they say weighing, the mean using a food scale and when they say counting, they mean counting calories.

There is no need to talk about the healthy extras and sins categories as they don’t really apply to the stance I’m going to make on this topic. Essentially, healthy extras are foods you should be measuring out and only consuming them in moderation and sins are the foods that are high in calories in small amounts (alcohol, chocolate etc.)

Now, let’s get down to the real business here shall we. I have many issues with this news article. So many that I could make this post last 10 or more pages if I really need to let some of my frustration out. However, I know people would probably stop reading after the third page so I’m going to keep this fairly short and sweet.

First, we must establish CONTEXT.

1 – Let’s talk about sugar.

Pasta is really delicious. And I’ll be the first one to tell you that I have eaten a fair share of it in my lifetime and still do have it occasionally now as well.

This is where we need to insert a little CONTEXT here. There is something in the nutrition world that is known as the Glycemic Index (GI.) Why it’s important to mention the GI here is because it helps me illustrate my point easier. The GI is a numerical scale which ranks carbohydrates based on how quickly it will raise a person’s blood sugar levels. The scale goes from 0 to 100 with numbers closer to 100 being foods that raise blood sugar levels more rapidly. A common reference food is table sugar, which is ranked at 100 and vegetables being ranked as low as in the single digits.

Let’s also establish here that carbohydrates are sugar. The basic molecular structure of carbohydrates consists of monosaccharides, which are simple sugars. Getting past all of the chemistry jargon, think of carbs as sugar. That means that rice, pasta, and potatoes are, when broken down to its basic molecular form, sugar.

Generally speaking, pasta usually falls anywhere from 50 to 60 on a GI. White rice and white potatoes fall between 85 and 100 on the GI. That means, when pasta is consumed, it raises blood sugar levels at a moderate to high rate and rice and potatoes at an even higher rate.

I’m not going to get into the deep science about this. Just know that you’re consuming high amounts of sugar when eating those foods.

2 – Pasta is high in calories

Despite what this article and the Slimming World eating program may say; pasta is not low in calories. I’m going to use Catelli Smart pasta as my example of choice here; a very common brand that I see a large number of people buying at the store. Have you ever looked at the nutrition label on a box of that pasta? I would be willing to bet a large amount of money that very few people know exactly how much one serving of pasta is and how many calories is in that serving.

For one serving of the Catelli Smart pasta, which is three-quarters of a cup (85g) there are 300 calories. Next time you have a measuring cup out, please look at how much three-quarters of a cup really is. I can tell you that very few people are eating three-quarters of a cup of pasta. Most people I would be willing to bet are eating three, four, five times that much in one sitting.

Let’s crunch some numbers here:

Let’s assume a person is eating four times that amount. That’s now 1200 calories. And I may have forgotten to mention that that’s before adding sauce and perhaps meat as well. So let’s conservatively add an extra 300 calories for a meat sauce. We are now up to 1500 calories for a bowl of pasta. And that’s just one meal, never mind everything else that we consume during our day.

Problems with the article

My biggest issue with this article is that the title is incredibly misleading and the information contained within is so vague it would be easy to take it out of CONTEXT. For a person who doesn’t have a working knowledge of nutrition, they would read the article and assume that eating as much pasta as they want will not hinder their weight loss goal. Unless you follow-up and dig a bit further about this research article and actually check out this Slimming World eating program, this article can be taken entirely out of CONTEXT.

The basic premise of the Slimming World eating program is to limit foods that are not so good for us. I am entirely on board with that school of thought. Moderation is the key. The one thing I’m not on board with is listing pasta and potatoes as foods to eat as much as you wish. The fact is; these foods are high in both basic sugars as well as calories and should be eaten in moderation.

The big problem is that people are not eating these foods in moderation. A person who eats primarily (90%) whole foods – lean meats, fish, eggs, vegetables, and fruits and who are healthy and active people, can afford to have pastas and potatoes every so often. Their bodies are efficient at breaking down sugars and not storing them as body fat. These people have properly functioning bodies.

This article plays right into the hands of people who are looking for a reason to feel good about their very poor eating habits. The last thing someone who is overweight, not active, and already eats predominantly high carbohydrate (sugar) food needs to be told is “go ahead, eat all the pasta you want and you’ll see great results.” It just doesn’t work that way.

The take-home point

I’m finally going to land this plane now.  If you’ve made is this far, you’ve probably noticed that the word CONTEXT has appeared numerous times.

Context is everything.

Everything you read, hear about, or see on TV must be kept and taken in context. Companies are trying to sell products, and journalists are trying to have as many clicks on their articles as possible. Companies can’t lie to consumers about their products, but they sure can present out of context and misleading information to them.

I like to use the following example to explain this point. Please picture if you can the following example:

You’re watching TV and you see an infomercial for the new TredClimbStepMaster 50 million X2.0. Charles used the TredClimbStepMaster 50 million X2.0 only three times a week for 14 minutes and lost 27 pounds in 6 weeks and now has a six pack. For only 4 easy payments of $49.99 USD the new TredClimbStepMaster 50 million X2.0 can be yours. And the best part is, if you’re not satisfied with your results, you’ll get your money back – no questions asked.

Man, does that ever sound like the answer to your prayers. Eating healthy, exercising frequently, and being active is just too darn hard and you simply don’t have the time to do it. But 14 minutes three times a week sounds like it’s manageable.

This is how companies sell you products.

Did Charles use the TredClimbStepMaster 50 million X2.0 three times a week for 14 minutes? He probably did. A company couldn’t say it if it wasn’t partially true. What the infomercial doesn’t tell you is what else Charles did to lose that weight. What did he eat? What didn’t he eat? What other exercise did he do? What are his lifestyle habits? They don’t need to tell you all of that information. It simply doesn’t sound as easy as 14 minutes three times a week.

Humans don’t like accepting responsibility for our actions. People are always looking for the easy out and not wanting to put in the hard work. People also don’t like feeling bad about their choices. We like justification for the bad things we eat. Reading an article titled “Lose weight by eating as much rice and potatoes as you want — no, really” makes us feel like all the garbage food we’ve been eating is OK because it’s supported by pseudoscience that we read in a local newspaper. Throw in the phenomena of “broken telephone” and this is how we end up with all of the terrible misinformation floating around on the internet and person to person in gyms around the world.

I hope moving forward, everyone who reads this post will think twice before blindly following advice given to them by someone who has no formal training as a health professional. This includes anything you read online, see on TV, or hear from the person at the gym who always seems to have the answer to your questions.

About the Author:  Eric Noyes BHSc (Kin), CSEP-CPT

Eric is  Kinesiology Graduate from The University of Ontario and holds his Training Certification with the Canadian Society for Exercise Physiology.  He has been training general population and sport specific clients at Body Fit since 2013 and is currently the Lead Trainer.  He can be reached at eric@bodyfit.ca for advice and consultation.