In defense of ziti, spaghetti and the Italian way

Thursday, February 19, 2004

ROME -- At a recent point in dining history, pasta perception spun around like spaghetti on a fork. Suddenly, noodles transformed from the diner's saucy delight to carb villains bound for the hips, buttocks and belly.

America's battle against pudginess -- inspired of late by the low-carb ethics of the Atkins, Zone and South Beach diets -- has trashed pasta. But defenders of macaroni and its floppy kin rebelled in Rome this week at a conference promoted as "Pasta Fights Back."

Their weapons at the three-day meeting that ended Wednesday were science, lectures and delectable plates of pasta handed out free to attendees. Another popular dish was denunciation of the latest American diet trend.

"How is it that it can be called a low-carb diet when in fact it is a dangerous high-fat diet? How can that happen in our culture?" railed K. Dun Gifford, president of the Oldways Preservation Trust, the Boston-based food issues think tank that organized the event.

One impassioned speaker called for a swift death to the Atkins Diet. Another skeptically cited 28 eating fads of recent years, among them the Caveman Diet, the Sex Diet and the Russian Air Force Diet. A third speaker recalled Sophia Loren's remark: "Everything you see, I owe to pasta."

The conference, officially titled "Healthy Pasta Meals," included numerous eminent scientists and was sponsored by Italian government ministries, pasta giant Barilla and the makers of Parmesan cheese, among others.

The executive chef of New York's Union Square Cafe, Michael Romano, flew in to cook. Prepping vegetables at the luxury hotel where the conference was held, Romano worried about the way Americans eat ... and eat.

"People want to eat from the time they get up till the time they go to sleep. And by the way, no exercise, please," Romano said. "It's all about proportion, it's all about balance."

The conference offered multi-course lunches -- wetted with appropriate Italian wines, of course -- featuring pasta specialties from all over Italy. A gala dinner, titled "The Glorious Healthy Pasta Meal," included spaghetti with tomatoes and air-dried tuna, flaked Parmesan drizzled with balsamic vinegar, lentil soup with scampi, and roast lamb with fava beans and egg lemon sauce.

Oldways argues that eating must be balanced -- not overloaded with fat and protein, nor heavy with carbohydrates. The Mediterranean diet, including fish, fruit, vegetables, breads, rice and pasta, is promoted above all.

Pasta, Oldways says, is an ideal delivery system for healthy ingredients: The carbs in high-quality pasta made from durum wheat are converted slowly into glucose, which has the benefit of more stable insulin levels, and keeps the eater feeling full longer.

John Foreyt, a professor at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston, noted that Italians have enjoyed the health benefits of pasta for over 1,000 years.

"Pasta has been wrongly injected into the good carb/bad carb debate, and we want to dispel the notion that it should be avoided," he said in the conference's closing statement.

Conference organizers acknowledge that low-carb, high-fat diets do produce short-term weight loss, but fear they could also increase the long-term risk of grave illnesses such as cancers and heart disease.

Evidence of this is hotly debated in scientific circles. Research suggests people have the best chance of avoiding heart disease, high blood pressure and cancer if they eat a varied diet with plenty of fruits, vegetables and grains.

Whatever the debate, no one can deny the low-carb diets' success.

Many dieters have enjoyed considerable weight loss through regimens that are heavy in meat, cheese and eggs and ultralight in carbs. Millions of Americans are on some form of these diets, and restaurants and food manufacturers are scrambling to offer low-carb products.

And recent studies showed these diets have success over short periods without serious health consequences.

Colette Heimowitz, the Atkins organization's research director, denied that the Atkins Diet is risky or a fad. "It's amazing how Atkins is blamed for everything," she said by phone from New York.

"If people could have moderation in everything that'd be wonderful," Heimowitz said. "We wouldn't have this discussion. But people won't, they don't, they can't. They need other options to reach their weight goals."

At the Rome conference, a little mournfulness was stirred in with dietary advice.

Cookbook writer Susan Herrmann Loomis expressed sadness about the U.S. attitude toward eating.

"Americans come with this enormous fear of what is on their plates, and it translates into fad diets," she said. "Unfortunately, that rarely has to do with just enjoying the heck out of what you're doing."

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