The Heart-Healthy Mix of Fat and Spice
Americans just canít seem to find that crucial equilibrium when it comes to eating a diet of healthful and enjoyable foods. We have become adherents to the idea of nutritionism, a reductionist concept popularized by the food writer Michael Pollan that shows we erroneously see foods as a collection of nutrients, and that food is nothing more than the sum of its parts. This leads to our attraction to all sorts of products that espouse questionable health claims (low-fat, fiber-rich, omega-rich, etc) as well as leading us further and further away from any guiding food tradition of our own. So we look to the diets of the Japanese, the French, as well as the people of the Mediterranean region to provide us with some pathway and guidance. But we are kind of hapless in our pursuit of true balance.
Now comes research from Penn State (a hotbed of nutritional research) that states one of the customary harmonies found in much of regional Indian cuisine (the pairing of fat and spices) may actually do the heart some good. The research suggests that heavily spiced meals actually reduces levels of triglycerides, a type of fat, in the blood ó even when the meal is rich in oily sauces and high in fat, as reported on NPR. We all know that elevated levels of triglycerides are a risk factor for heart disease and heart attack, and by simply pairing spices like turmeric, paprika, coriander, and cumin with high fat foods like duck or lamb, may not only cancel out the inherent fats in the animal protein but actually promote better heart health (no word on whether this works just the same for vegetarian derived fats like coconut oil). At Penn State they noticed a decrease of triglycerides by about one-third. This compares with people who ate the same meal, but prepared without spices. “To me, the biggest advantage [found in the study] is the lowering of triglycerides and the insulin levels [which dropped about 20 percent],” explains cardiologist Ravi Dave of he University of California, Los Angeles who has reviewed West’s spice research study. He explains that keeping these levels low can lower the risk of metabolic syndrome ó as well as diabetes and heart disease.
So is a rich Indian curry the new heart-healthy alternative to pasta carbonara? Will we be seeing curry jerky, rich in heart-happy spices, in the supermarket aisles right next to our omega-rich muffins? Probably, but the research is still relatively untested and it will be quite sometime before we know for certain whether a particular blend of spices will yield true heart health. What we can take away from all of this is that many of the traditional cuisines that have been established for hundreds of years have an inherent wisdom and equilibrium that is sadly absent from what currently passes for the American diet. What is your takeaway from all of this? Does it prompt you to go curry in a hurry, or are you skeptical of such claims? Do you try to integrate other cultural traditions into your cooking to maintain health?