To Cut The Risk Of A High-Fat Meal, Add Spice
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Today in "Your Health," dropping pounds when you're overweight may be contagious to those around you. We'll hear the evidence in a moment. First, spicy foods may be good for your heart. New studies are showing some spices, like those used in dishes from the Indian subcontinent, can cut the risk of diabetes and heart disease. NPR's Allison Aubrey reports.
ALLISON AUBREY, BYLINE: If you think that just a little dash of the traditional Indian spice turmeric can go a long way, as I once did, you've likely never had it prepared for you in the way Poonam Dhingra learned from her mother.
POONAM DHINGRA: Let me tell you something. You have to really use a lot of turmeric. And I think it's very healthy. That's what it is.
AUBREY: Even at breakfast, when she'd add it to a chickpea dish, or use it to prepare a turmeric milk - which she's making now.
How many teaspoons do you think are here in this little dish?
DHINGRA: Oh, I would say about five.
AUBREY: So Indians are not afraid to use turmeric.
DHINGRA: Oh, definitely not, definitely not. This is like a second nature to us.
AUBREY: Dhingra owns an Indian restaurant called Mehak, just around the corner from NPR. And when she invited me to try this milk, I was curious.
DHINGRA: I'm going to put some sugar, and you just mix it well. And make sure the milk is warm, and stir it - and drink it.
AUBREY: Dhingra says her mother would make this milk when she was sick or had a cut. In her house, this was considered medicine.
Does this bring back a taste of childhood?
DHINGRA: Yeah, it's - yeah, definitely, definitely.
AUBREY: And when I take a sip of this warm turmeric milk?
DHINGRA: It's a lot of - pungent.
AUBREY: Very pungent. You know, I was afraid to take so much of it. I thought it would be really strong. But it...
DHINGRA: With the sugar, it actually - or honey, if you have the honey...
AUBREY: Yeah, I'm really shocked. I thought that this would be really overwhelming. And instead, it's just sort of a nice sort of aromatic milk.
DHINGRA: Yes, definitely.
AUBREY: What I notice, as the residue of milk paints my mouth, is a sort of subtle, tingling sensation. What Dhingra experiences is a taste of health.
DHINGRA: And I think our parents - or our ancestors definitely knew about it, that - what came good of it.
AUBREY: So how does this super-spiced turmeric drink fit with what researchers are learning about the health benefits of spices? Well, turns out the amount of spice may be significant. When Dhingra showed us how easy it is to use two teaspoons of spice, this is how much researchers used in a recent study to evaluate turmeric and a blend of other spices' effect on the cardiovascular system. Sheila West, of Penn State, is the author.
SHEILA WEST: Spices are of great interest to consumers, and a lot of claims are made about their health-enhancing effects.
AUBREY: But West says the rigorous trials doctors rely upon to nail down the evidence are just starting to happen. For her study, she recruited a bunch of people who agreed to eat several specially prepared meals, and then have their blood drawn so researchers could analyze cholesterol, triglycerides and insulin counts.
WEST: We created a meal that had three different components to it.
AUBREY: On the first night, the volunteers dined on a fairly high-fat chicken entree served with bread and a dessert biscuit, all of which was prepared with no spice at all.
WEST: It was palatable, but it was a bit bland.
AUBREY: On the next occasion, the same diners ate the same meal, except this time all three dishes were prepared with lots of spices - a blend that included turmeric, cloves, ginger, rosemary and cinnamon. And West says what she found came as a big surprise.
WEST: Elevated triglycerides are a risk factor for heart disease. And what we've showed is that when you had the spices included in the high-fat meal, the triglyceride response was reduced by about a third. And it was surprising in magnitude, that's for sure. I guess I just didn't expect such a large decrease.
AUBREY: When cardiologist Ravi Dave, of UCLA Medical School, looked at West's findings he, too, was impressed. He points out the researchers also found a significant effect on insulin response, with levels decreasing about 20 percent.
RAVI DAVE: To me, the biggest advantage is that lowering triglycerides and the insulin levels also lowers the risk of metabolic syndrome, which is a precursor to diabetes and a significant risk factor for heart disease.
AUBREY: Dave says it's not clear whether these benefits of highly spiced meals lead to a long-term effect. He says as traditional healing methods are evaluated using modern scientific methods, more research is needed to nail down which blend of spices, at what levels, may be therapeutic.
DAVE: What we have is more emerging data on the benefits of spices. So I'm really excited.
AUBREY: The challenge, Dave says, may be to get more Americans habituated to a little more kick in their curry.
Allison Aubrey, NPR News.
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