Adding a Dash of Spice to Life

 by Prudence Athearn Levy, MS, RD, LD
Vineyard Gazette
March 14th, 2014

Throughout this snowy winter I’ve talked with a lot of Islanders who have been doing their best to be healthier, eat cleaner and exercise more. Well-intentioned resolutions that began in January became a little harder to stick to in February. And by now, motivation levels are seriously challenged.

One way to make a change in late winter is by spicing things up — literally.

Spices such as ginger, cinnamon, turmeric and cumin, herbs such as oregano, hot peppers and black pepper, and flavor enhancers such as garlic, shallots, leeks and onions are a good way to dig out of any winter food rut. It also may help to promote good health. Many herbs and spices are packed with antioxidants — substances that help protect cells from the damage of oxidative stress. If you are trying to lose weight, spicing up your meals adds no extra calories. Spices are also great way for people who must restrict their sodium intake to add flavor to their food without added salt.

Herbs and spices can also help curb sugar cravings, which can hit hard in the winter. There is a long list of reasons why we crave sugar, including but not limited to genetics, habit, true hunger, emotional hunger, boredom, lack of variety in foods, low serotonin levels, and meal skipping. By eating a planned meal or snack every three to four hours, listening to your body’s cues for hunger and fullness, incorporating a balanced variety of foods, and using herbs (fresh or dried), spices and alliums like garlic, shallots, leeks and onions, to flavor food, it is possible to tame that sweet tooth.

Studies have shown that increasing the intake of herbs, seeds, spices and alliums can increase a person’s intake of phytochemical antioxidants — a powerful punch that may also reduce the risk for heart disease, cancer, Alzheimer’s and vision loss. Oregano, turmeric, ginger and cinnamon rank as some of the highest in antioxidant content (based on the list from the McCormick Science Institute), but dozens more are worth exploring.

Without much flavorful fresh produce available this time of year, herbs and spices can add zest to meals. Oregano revives canned tomatoes and rounds out a winter cacciatore. Many fresh herbs grow beautifully in sunny windowsills at this time of year.

Turmeric is much in the news these days for its health-improving properties. Curcumin, the compound found in turmeric, has been researched for its potential role in preventing or delaying many inflammatory diseases including arthritis, heart disease and even diabetes. Turmeric is delicious on roasted chickpeas (garbanzo beans). Toss a can of rinsed and dried chickpeas with one tablespoon olive oil, one teaspoon turmeric, a quarter teaspoon of sea salt, black pepper and/or cayenne pepper to taste. Spread the coated chickpeas on a baking sheet in a single layer and bake at 350 degrees for 45 minutes, stirring occasionally. One half-cup serving of this is a perfect winter snack, rich in protein and fiber. Roasted cauliflower or Brussels sprouts are also delicious with a liberal sprinkle of turmeric, ginger, cinnamon and cumin. Research has indicated that cinnamon may be helpful for weight loss by controlling blood sugar levels and decreasing insulin, a storage hormone. Cinnamon is also great for curbing a sweet tooth — giving a sweet flavor without adding actual sugar. Try it in smoothies, on top of almond butter toast in place of jelly, sprinkled on apple slices for a healthy dessert or sprinkled into oatmeal, quinoa salad or spiced lentils.

Ginger, freshly grated or powdered, is delicious in a stir-fry or any Asian-inspired meal. I love it in homemade salad dressings. Ginger has a long history of medicinal use and is known to relax the walls of the intestine, providing relief for nausea, morning sickness in pregnancy and upset stomachs. Try making your own ginger tea by peeling and slicing fresh ginger and steeping in freshly boiled water.

Turn up the heat with some black pepper (containing the compound piperine, currently being studied for its potential role in boosting metabolism), ground onto salads, roasted vegetables and into soups. Cayenne pepper, a concentrated source of capsaicin, a powerful phytochemical that provides the heat in spicy peppers, can act as a pain reliever and is linked with a possible role in thwarting cancer development. Add dried cayenne flakes to homemade pizza, soups, chili and stews for some winter heat.

Finally, don’t be shy with garlic, onions, shallots and leeks. Their anti-microbial and anti-bacterial properties may just stave off that cold you’ve been fighting. Soups are appealing at this time of year, so load them up with alliums for optimal health and intense satisfaction and flavor. Roast garlic until soft with sweet potatoes and a Vidalia onion. You can also use roasted garlic in homemade hummus and spread onto whole grain crackers for a delicious snack. I always add at least a whole large onion when cooking chard, kale or bok choi, sometimes caramelizing it, sometimes cooking it more quickly with the stems of the greens before adding the chopped leaves.

Whatever you are craving, herbs and spices can take you to the next level of culinary satisfaction, optimal nutrition, and good taste.


Prudence Athearn Levy is a registered and licensed dietitian living and working in Edgartown. She is the co-owner of Vineyard Nutrition (

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