Walnuts, anchovies, garlic and parsley transform spaghetti into haute cuisine.
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I suspect that this dogma stems from a mistaken assumption that all carbohydrates — or at least all complex carbohydrates — are nutritionally identical; and since many low-carbohydrate diets are in part founded on the valid observation that eating too much of certain carbohydrate-rich foods can contribute to obesity and a variety of health concerns, this is a fairly common fallacy that ought to be addressed. Perhaps, though, the best way to do this is to refer you to Dr. Terry Shintani’s The Good Carbohydrate Revolution, published in 2003, which offers sound nutritional theory from the pen of a nutrition expert formally designated a “living treasure of Hawai’i,” combined with a selection of recipes from each of three diets that Shintani recommends for weight loss, health and energy, all of them distinguished by shared thematic features.
As it happens, Dr. Shintani, treasure though he may be, was anticipated by at least 28 years — by my mother, something of a nutritionist in her own right, and a co-founder of the Head Start program in Vermont; she is also a constant analyst and never satisfied with received wisdom. As early as 1975, she had worked out what government scientists are just now coming to understand and promulgate: that the soundest of diets is principally based on grains and therefore rich in carbohydrates. But, like Shintani nearly three decades later and the USDA only now, she understood that carbohydrates can differ markedly in their nutritional properties; her ideal diet was therefore founded upon fiber-rich whole grains. Whole wheat, brown rice, rolled oats, buckwheat groats: To her, these were the staff of life. Refined flours, however, she thought little better than refined sugar: To her, these were empty calories.
By 2003, Shintani had compiled and correlated experimental data to confirm what my mother knew without benefit of studies: Whether a carbohydrate is good or bad depends on what kind of carbohydrate it is. And behold! Since the nutritional value of carbohydrates varies more or less inversely with their glycogen index (how much of them is converted into sugars and metabolized in a given period of time), it transpires that whole grains, with much fiber, break down slowly and instigate no insulin reactions, sparing the body many potential harms; white bread and white short-grain rice, on the other hand, release massive amounts of sugars rapidly and are therefore best avoided. Excoriating the “Great American White Diet,” Shintani analyzes a long list of commonly eaten grain-based foods, with an eye to glycogen index, fiber and other factors, and ranks them according to their nutritional quality.
Almost all breads, for example — since they are leavened and digest quickly — tend toward the bottom of the chart (although of course they are scattered according to their whole-grain content). Rice ranges from awful to awesome: Short white “dessert” rices are almost as bad as Wonder bread, while long-grain brown Basmati ranks as one of the best possible choices. Pasta, despite being made from “white” flour, is dense and made from hard durum semolina, so Shintani ranks it surprisingly well, not far from the top of his list.
The amylophobes’ error is a common one; we also see it in xenophobes’ perception of other cultures. Both ’phobes are guilty of heeding a flawed heuristic, falling into the fallacy of assuming that all members of a class are fungible and identical. But by now they should be learning that a bowl of pasta is no more like a Safeway cupcake than a peace-loving Sufi imam is like Osama bin Laden.