Spotlight on Spice: Turmeric

About a week ago I wrapped up one of this semester’s classes toward my associate’s in Nutrition: Research in Complementary and Alternative Nutrition Therapies. Not gonna lie, it was not an awesome class and unfortunately I did not learn as much as I had hoped about this up-and-coming field. (Lots of emphasis on the Scientific Method, which I believe was covered sufficiently in my 8th grade science class.) Still, one piece of real learning took place in writing the final for the course, a short research paper on a commonly used dietary supplement. There are of course thousands of these food-like substances to choose from–just stroll down the supplement aisle at Whole Foods–but I decided to write my paper on turmeric, having heard rumors of its anti-inflammatory properties. Since I have several friends and family members who suffer from inflammatory autoimmune diseases, I have been curious to sort fact from fiction regarding this particular spice. The research process was an enlightening one, so I thought I would share a bit of what I learned here on the blog. Turmeric is, after all, a food–and a delicious one at that!

For a little background: turmeric is a rhizomatic herbaceous relative of ginger and has been used for centuries in a variety of medicinal capacities. Native to East Asia, the turmeric plant is typically ground to a rust-colored powder known for lending its warm, slightly bitter taste to many Indian dishes. Its healing use dates back nearly 4,000 years in Chinese and Ayurvedic medicine. Marco Polo first described the spice in 1280, but mainstream Western interest in its healing powers has arisen only relatively recently, correlating with the increase in popularity of herbal supplementation.

One interesting fact about turmeric is that it contains a compound called curcumin, which can be extracted and is sold as its own separate dietary supplement. Curcumin is the “active ingredient” in turmeric, giving the spice its many purported medicinal functions. However, since bioavailability of curcumin is
generally low and can be aided by black pepper, it is believed to be most
beneficial to ingest turmeric as a spice in food also containing black pepper, or in a supplement packaged with black pepper. Fortunately for those of us who like Indian cooking, most Indian dishes that use turmeric (which is a LOT) also call for black pepper. Makes you think the Indians are on to something, what with that 4,000 year history…

The healing effects, both genuine and purported, of turmeric are numerous and diverse. Maladies treated with turmeric throughout history and at present include rheumatoid arthritis, asthma, digestive conditions, diabetes, wound healing, chicken pox, jaundice, inflammation, menstrual problems, cancer, and Alzheimer’s disease. This list is by no means exhaustive. If you can name a medical problem, you can probably find someone out there who believes turmeric can help it. So what does the evidence show? Is this sunny spice a cure-all or another over-hyped placebo?

The research—and there is quite a lot of it—surrounding medicinal uses of turmeric is somewhat conflicting. The National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health states that “there is little reliable evidence to support the use of turmeric for any health condition” because of the lack of clinical trials and testing on human subjects. This skeptical outlook may be overly cautious, though, since numerous peer-reviewed studies have appeared in recent years showing evidence of effective treatments using turmeric. For

  • A study published just this month reveals that curcumin complements the action of DHA on the brain, enhancing its synthesis and leading to anxiety prevention.
  • Another study determined turmeric supplementation to be an effective therapy for maintaining remission in ulcerative colitis.
  • Yet another recent study found that type 2 diabetes patients who received turmeric supplements in addition to their oral medication experienced marked decreases in fasting blood sugar compared to a control group.
  • Turmeric has been shown to work as well as NSAID pain medications for treating osteoarthritis of the knee. Over two dozen anti-inflammatory compounds within the spice work to block the COX-2 enzyme, which promotes pain, swelling, and inflammation.
  • Over 50 studies have addressed turmeric’s effects on Alzheimer’s disease, indicating that it contains agents that can block the substance that produces plaque on the brain. Quite likely, this explains why elderly villagers in India who consume turmeric in sizable quantities have the lowest rates of Alzheimer’s in the world.

Without a doubt, this list does not cover all the research into the benefits of including turmeric in your diet, but even if the uses listed above were its only advantages, I’d still say it’s a golden powerhouse of a spice. I’m happy to find ways to incorporate it more frequently into my cooking. Look for a turmeric-spiced red lentils recipe coming in my next post! And if you’re interested in recommendations for using turmeric as a supplement, ask your doctor–or check out Dr. Andrew Weil’s recommendations here. (Though I should probably say, so no one sues me, this post is not intended to be medical advice.) I won’t be surprised if, as research continues, turmeric becomes accepted into the usage canon of mainstream medical practice. What a wonderful example of food’s potential power in our bodies for health and healing!

10 Ways to Help Kids Eat Fruit & Vegetables

So, yes, that is a picture of my children in a moment of pure delight. No, we did not inspire this delight by saying, “Smile and say ‘Hooray for vegetables!'” They’re great kids and they usually eat fruit and vegetables quite willingly, but I would have to suspect that aliens had taken over their little bodies if the thought of eating vegetables actually made them this happy. Still, as I say, to varying degrees, each of my three kids is a reasonably agreeable fruit and veggie eater. And when I hear from other friends whose kids would rather eat a green Lego than a green vegetable, I feel pretty thankful. Recently I had a conversation with one such fellow mom. For awhile now she’s been wracking her brain to think of effective ways to get her little ones to eat anything but bread and cheese. Since I’m studying nutrition (and since we’ve had our share of healthy food struggles in our house, too) I tried to give her some ideas to implement. I figured it I shared my thoughts with her, I might as well share them on the blog as well. Some may seem obvious, and they may not work on every kid, as every child is different, but I’d say they’re worth a try!

1. Start early. This one is especially for those parents with really little ones. Even from their first meals, kids are getting acclimated to what’s “normal” eating in your household. Start with fruits and vegetables as a given at every meal.

2. Be a good example. As a parent, you set the tone for the way your family eats. Why should your kids eat healthy foods if you don’t? Model what you want to see in them.

3. Fun presentation. This may be the most effective one for my kids. They go BONKERS for fruit slices on skewers, “ghosty bananas” (half bananas with two chocolate chips for eyes), or their names written with carrot sticks. Entire studies have been conducted on the effectiveness of fun presentation for getting kids to eat well. There are a million ideas at your fingertips on the Internet. This also correlates with…

4. What’s in a name? This takes a little creativity but can make a difference. What would your kid rather eat: vegetable soup or Swamp Soup? (Maybe even Swamp of Dagobah Soup if your kids are Star Wars fans.) How about Green Mountain Salad instead of spinach salad? This works on adults, too, by the way, which is why we’d rather order Hand-Tossed Tuscan Kale Salad than just a kale salad.

5. Dipping sauces. Here’s another element of fun, plus a measure of perceived control for kids. If a child can make her own decision about which condiment accompanies her veggie–Ranch? barbecue sauce? ketchup?–she’ll feel more autonomous. In the presence of ketchup, my kids can’t help but make every long cylindrical food item into a Darth Maul light saber (ketchup on both ends). Just make sure they eat the actual vegetable, not just the sauce, like a certain 3-year-old in my house.

6. Variety of preparation. Your kid doesn’t like raw beets? Neither do I. Different preparations appeal to different people. Since kids often gravitate toward sweet tastes, roasting vegetables to bring out their inherent sweetness may please their palates. Sauces, honey, bread crumbs, cheese, and other toppings can go a long way to make vegetables more appetizing for little ones.

7. Not just for dinner (or lunch). In our house, the general trend seems to be fruits at breakfast and lunch, vegetables at dinner. It’s an unspoken cultural rule that serves no real purpose. There’s no reason why fruit can’t turn up on the dinner table, or why vegetables can’t make a cameo at breakfast. And don’t forget snack time! Apples with peanut butter, sweet peppers with hummus, or fruit smoothies can pack fruit and veggie servings in when they go missing at mealtimes.

8. Mix, don’t hide. While I don’t agree with the idea of hiding fruits and vegetables in kids’ foods, I do believe serving them incorporated into mixed dishes can help them go down easier. Casseroles, quiches, and pizzas are great items to pack with veggies.

9. Offer choice. “Would you rather have carrots or peas tonight?” “Would you like strawberries or apples in your lunchbox?” Every kid likes to choose for himself, as evidenced by the chorus of “I want the blue plate, not the pink one!” and “I want waffles, not toast!” that reverberates through my kitchen on a daily basis.

10. Keep trying! Remember that even adults have personal taste preferences. So your kid isn’t a fan of carrots. That’s okay. There are plenty of other fish in the sea…or vegetables in the produce aisle (and fruits!).

Health, Earth, Worth: Why I’m a Half-time Vegetarian

If you’ve spent any time looking around this blog, you may have noticed that I don’t feature a whole lot of meat recipes. In fact, I don’t even have a category for beef or other red meat here on the Love Letter because I’ve never blogged about a red meat dish. Vegetarian mains, yes, frequently; chicken, yes, occasionally; pork, yes, here and there; chocolate desserts, yes infinity. So why the lack of lovin’ for America’s standard fare, red (or other colored) meats?

After giving it a lot of thought, I’ve made a concentrated effort in the last year or two to whittle down our family’s meat intake (including beef, chicken, and pork) to approximately 50% of our meals. It started even longer ago than that, around 2009, with a New Year’s Resolution to eat more fish and beans–one of the few resolutions that have ever actually stuck. From there, it’s become a consistent commitment that when I sit down to plan six dinners a week, three of them will be vegetarian. (Breakfasts around here are pretty much always vegetarian, and lunches also end up being about 50%.) For awhile I’ve wanted to elucidate my reasons for doing this, even if just for myself. So here’s my little manifesto. I’ll call it “Health, Earth, Worth,” since each of my reasons for half-time vegetarianism falls into these categories. I hope it inspires you to consider whether you might go moderately meatless, too.


There are a number of health risks that improve with a vegetarian or even semi-vegetarian diet, but let’s focus on some of the biggies that face the average American.

Cancer: You’ve probably heard that a plant-based diet is considered protective against numerous cancers. I only recently realized how many cancers are affected by high levels of meat consumption. According to this report, cancers of the esophagus, stomach, lung, breast, brain, bladder, mouth, prostate, and colon, as well as leukemia have been linked to high levels of of meat intake. Looking at this list, I have to go, what other cancers are even left? (Kidding…but seriously, look at that list.)

Hypertension/Heart Disease: Studies have consistently shown that a vegetarian diet lowers risk for heart disease. It’s pretty simple. The saturated fat and cholesterol inherent in a meat-heavy diet is a proven pathway to hypertension and coronary heart disease.

Diabetes: Though we may not always correlate diabetes with meat consumption, there is a connection. Even someone who only goes semi-vegetarian has a 24% reduced risk of developing diabetes (compared with an even higher 46% reduction in lacto-ovo-vegetarians).

I’m not even going to go into the stuff about antibiotic resistance and hormones in our food. I’ll let you look those up on your own (and possibly cause yourself an epic freakout).


Emissions: Global warming, pollution, loss of biodiversity…cows? Did you know that one cow’s annual output of methane–the gas that largely responsible for global warming–is equivalent to a car burning 235 gallons of gasoline? According to this Ted Talk by Mark Bittman, after energy production, livestock is the second highest contributor to atmosphere-altering gases, even more than transportation.

Land Degradation: The World Health Organization says livestock production is a major source of this environmental process in which an inordinate amount of land is used for grazing. The expansion of livestock-grazing land is also a major cause of deforestation world-wide.

Water Shortage: 8% of global human water use goes toward livestock production, and water used for animals is the “largest sectoral source of water pollutants,” according to the U.N.’s Food and Agriculture Organization. In the desert Southwest where water shortages hit close to home, I have to say this is troubling.


Everyone who doesn’t want more money, raise your hand. Okay, great, we’re all on the same page. You don’t have to be a budget analyst to realize that meat is expensive–significantly more expensive than plant-based foods. For our family, I’m happy to cut costs by swapping meat for vegetables, dairy, and whole grains. As many others before me have noted, limiting your meat consumption allows you the luxury of paying a higher price for better quality meat when you do buy it.

So now that I’ve given you my reasons for reducing meat eating (and aren’t they convincing? yes? yes?), let me quickly address the other side of the coin…

Why I’m Not a Full-Time Vegetarian

Because I don’t wanna be!

Haha, The End.

Just kidding. My reasons for not committing to full-time vegetarianism are somewhat selfish, but also partly (I believe) founded in dietetic science. The boil down to convenience, nutritional adequacy, and taste preference.

Convenience: Like I said, selfish. But also not selfish. Meat is a way of life in the U.S., and I never want to be the one person in the party who makes everyone else bend over backwards to accommodate my diet. As an American with mostly non-hippie friends, I feel meat is inevitable in my life.

Adequacy: Yes, I know plenty of vegetarians get all the vitamins and minerals and nutrients their bodies need. But I realize that consuming adequate amounts of Vitamin B12, Vitamin D, protein, etc. on a purely vegetarian diet would require an additional level of awareness and effort I’m just not ready for, especially since I cook for 5 people.

Taste: The thought of giving up hamburgers, chicken pot pie, and pulled pork forever brings me sincere sadness. Food is one of life’s greatest pleasures and I believe we are entitled to enjoy it. I happen to enjoy meat, in moderation.

So what say you? How’s about resolving to reduce your meat intake in this beautiful new year? I believe you can’t go wrong in giving it a try!

6 Things You Didn’t Know About Fat

There are various ways to look at the word “fat.” Most of us think of the word with pejorative overtones, something we don’t want applied to us. The adjectives aren’t pretty and evoke feelings of playground humiliation: chubby, flabby, plump, chunky, pudgy. Then of course you could think of “fat” like that fat check you got when you finally sold your Van Halen live-in-concert VHS collection on Craigslist. And don’t even get me started on “phat” (mostly because, even as a child of the ’90s, I still don’t think I get it.) But there’s another set of terms I want to talk about today. Terms like lipid, adipose, triglyceride, sterol, fatty acid. These describe the other kind of fat, the macronutrient every human being requires to sustain life. There are so many fascinating aspects to dietary fat and the way our bodies use it, and quite possibly a lot you didn’t know.

As I’ve progressed in my coursework toward becoming a Dietetic Technician, I’ve come to understand so much of what always seemed confusing about fat nomenclature. Since I’ve learned how to navigate the different kinds of fat (like that mental image?) I thought I’d share some of the information I’ve found interesting and helpful.

1. Let’s start with an cool trivia point: what’s the fattest organ in your body? Your brain! About 60% of your brain’s matter is fat. So if someone calls you a “fathead,” you can be proud to know you’re perfectly normal. (And they’re a fathead, too. Obviously.)

2. Fat provides 9 calories per gram (whereas carbs and protein provide 4). This is true across the board for any fat. That’s why, even though nutrition labels list number of calories from fat in a food, you can always calculate it yourself by multiplying the grams of fat by 9.

3. What’s the difference between saturated and unsaturated fats? You probably know they must be related because they have that word “saturated” in common. To understand the difference between these types of fat, you have to understand what “saturated” means. Fat is made up of carbon chains. In saturated fat, all of the available carbons in the chain are bonded with hydrogen…kind of like how I always felt at junior high dances when all the cute boys immediately paired up with the popular girls. All the carbons are taken, paired off, saturated. In unsaturated fats, however, there’s a break in the music, a chance for a different kind of bond. Instead of all the carbons being taken up by hydrogen, something called a double bond occurs, which, instead of bonding a carbon to hydrogen, bonds carbon to another carbon, leaving it not entirely saturated…in other words, unsaturated. And the only difference between a monounsaturated fat and a polyunsaturated fat is that a mono has only one of these breaks, whereas a poly has two or more.

4. Now that you know the difference between saturated and unsaturated fat, it probably makes sense why saturated fat is generally solid at room temperature. Everything is paired off and packed in, making it denser. On the other hand, unsaturated fats (like oils) are generally liquid at room temperature for the opposite reason.

5. What about trans fats? What are they and why are they so scary? Somewhere along the line, scientists realized that they could mess with the chemical structure of unsaturated fats (i.e. oils) by plopping in some extra hydrogen where it didn’t really belong to create what are called trans fats. The process of unnaturally adding hydrogen is known as hydrogenation. So when you see the word “hydrogenated” on an ingredient list, you know the food contains some amount of trans fat, even if the label says 0 grams trans fat. (The FDA allows foods with .5 grams or less per serving to round down to zero.) Research has yet to show exactly why trans fats have a negative effect on health, but they have definitively been linked to coronary heart disease and several other conditions you don’t want to get.

6. One last kind of fat you hear a lot about is Omega 3s. The reason these unsaturated fats have this name is simply due to the spot where they have their carbon-to-carbon bond: on the third carbon from the end. Bet you can guess where Omega-6 and Omega-9 have theirs now, too.

Okay, that was kind of a lot of chemistry. I should probably stop now. But I have so many more things I want to tell you about fat! I’ll be hoarding up my fat facts for another post soon, focusing on fat’s effects in your body. And if you’re still hungry for macronutrient info, you can head over to my carbohydrate facts page!

2014 Nutrition and Health Conference: the Cutting Edge and the Common Sense

As I mentioned last time I posted, this past week I had the incredible opportunity to attend the 2014 Nutrition and Health Conference in Dallas. The conference is put on by the University of Arizona’s Center for Integrative Medicine, the groundbreaking holistic clinic/research/training center founded by Dr. Andrew Weil 20 years ago this year. I have followed Dr. Weil’s work for quite awhile now and have even visited the Center’s clinic as a patient (which, by the way, was the greatest health care experience of my life so far). Last year when I first heard about the conference, I applied for one of the limited student scholarships to attend, but did not receive one. Then this year it was like a little alarm went off in my head around February saying, “ding-ding-ding-Nutrition-and-Health-Conference!” I looked up the conference and sure enough, applications for student scholarships were due in two days. I wrote my 250-word “this is why you should choose me” statement and sent it off. Much to my surprise and delight, the next week I got the wonderful news that I had been given a scholarship!

Dr. Weil giving the opening presentation

The conference was held at the Intercontinental Hotel in Addison and lasted two and a half information-packed days. It’s hard to even know where to begin to describe all that I learned–I only hope I can retain it! If I had to distill it down to a sound byte, my parting impression of the conference as a whole can be described with these two phrases: the cutting edge and the common sense. Yes, I heard about a lot of trials/journal articles (even research that has yet to be published–cool!), but I also heard a lot of simple, practical advice that could apply to anyone seeking a healthy diet. I attended lectures on everything from the benefits of the polyphenols in blueberries to managing pain with diet to using guided imagery to treat diabetes. Because I know I can’t record anything close to a comprehensive inventory of all I learned this week, I thought I’d give a summary of my biggest takeaways, along with a few random interesting facts.

Big Takeaways:

One of the most frequently addressed topics throughout the conference was the importance of “gut microbiota” (also known as intestinal flora or the bacteria in your belly and bum) for overall health. As a population, our gut microbiota has been compromised over the years by a variety of factors, including

  • overuse of antibiotics
  • over-sanitation
  • rise in processed food
  • increase in C-section deliveries
  • decline in breastfeeding

These little buggers have an astoundingly powerful affect on so many aspects of health, from the obvious (the GI tract) to the surprising (mood and behavior; obesity) to the scary (Western diseases). Thankfully, we have a large measure of control over our gut flora through

  • diet, such yogurt (not the super sweet kind) and other fermented foods, as well as fruits and vegetables
  • pro- and prebiotics
  • fecal transplants (this is for the very ill–don’t worry)

In the future, we will probably see probiotics custom-made for individual GI tracts. Until then, we can put ourselves in the driver’s seat by eating a diet rich in probiotics and taking them in capsulated form, as well as increasing our fiber intake.

A second big takeaway from the conference was putting the nail in the coffin of the myth that saturated fat is a culprit in cardiovascular disease. Recent studies have shown that saturated fat is not responsible for cardiovascular disease. In fact, the low-fat diet push of the ’70s through ’90s is probably one factor that has driven the obesity epidemic–in the absence of satiating fats, people turned to increased carbs–which has only increased the incidence of CV disease. This isn’t a reason to eat cheesecake with abandon (darn) but it is grounds to stop demonizing fat.

In addition to taking the focus off of fat as a dietary bogeyman, presenters at the conference repeatedly stressed the importance of viewing overall dietary patterns, rather than nitpicky numbers and percentages. For the average layperson who wants to lose weight or simply be healthy, this kind of myopia is unnecessary and burdensome.

So what do we tell that layperson who wants to lose weight or be healthy? In the midst of a million diets, cookbooks, blogs, and self-proclaimed experts, is there a one-size-fits-all piece of advice? Well, probably not. But the one recommendation that seemed to come through from most presenters as a great place to start was the Mediterranean diet. It’s plant-based, low-sugar, and healthy-fat-focused. I call that common sense.

And now that we’ve talked Big Takeaways, it’s time for the…

Random Interesting Stuff:

  • Calorie intake in the U.S. has increased around 400 calories/day since 1970
  • Nutrition facts about nuts are deceiving (in a good way). Because the body only digests about 70% of a nut, you only get 70% of the calories. Also, eating a handful of nuts decreases caloric absorption by 3% over the next 24 hours. So go nuts!
  • When Taco Bell recently ran a commercial depicting someone being embarrassed by bringing a veggie tray to a Super Bowl party, all it took was about 40 tweets decrying the ad for Taco Bell to pull it off the air. Grassroots nutrition advocacy, man!
  • The top source for omega-3 fatty acids in the American diet? Italian dressing (because of its soybean oil content). Make the better choice and get them from fish and nuts!
  • Despite the 18% rise in food allergies from 1997-2007, there are promising treatments for food allergies. The idea of building up an immunity to something is not new, but it can work when applied very gradually. If a child with, say, a peanut allergy eats incrementally larger and larger amounts of peanuts (starting, of course, with a teeny-tiny amount), s/he can eventually become asymptomatic to peanuts. Kinda like…

Interestingly, most people who go through this process then have to eat some small amount of peanuts (or whatever the food may be) every day to maintain their immunity.

Sorry, couldn’t resist.

So there you have it. What a whirlwind of information my two and a half days in Dallas were. I’m already looking forward to next year, when the conference will be held in Phoenix!