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New Study from University of Maryland School of Medicine Researchers Shows that Creative Spicing Encourages Healthy Eating

August 03, 2015

Chris D’Adamo, PhD

Innovative Nutrition Education Boosts Diet Quality and Healthy Eating in African-American Adolescents 

With obesity continuing as a significant public health program in the U.S., one group, in particular, is being affected more than any other segment of the population: African American youths. According to the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services, nearly two-thirds of this group is overweight, compared with 43 percent of white adolescents. Yet this population has received little attention from researchers. Now, a new study by researchers at University of Maryland School of Medicine (UM SOM) points to one promising solution: boosting food flavor with an array of healthy herbs and spices. 

The study, led by Principal Investigator Chris D’Adamo, PhD, Assistant Professor of Family and Community Medicine and Director of Research at the Center for Integrative Medicine, was published in the July 9th issue of the American Journal of Health Promotion. 

“There’s no doubt that this approach could help to raise the standards of health education in urban public schools. It sets a new example for what is possible,” says Dr. D’Adamo.

The intervention, known as Spice MyPlate, sought to introduce healthy eating to adolescents by integrating creative and highly experiential nutrition lessons focusing on spices and herbs into the classroom. Dr. D’Adamo conducted a trial to compare standard nutrition education in USDA MyPlate guidelines to standard nutrition education plus the Spice MyPlate curriculum. 

Participants were chosen from two public high schools in Baltimore. Both schools are predominantly African-American and most students live in neighborhoods that are in “food deserts” — areas where access to healthy food is very limited. All the students in the study received a few items to make their learning experience possible. Along with a gift card to one of two local grocery stores, students in both study groups were given twelve spices and herbs (cinnamon, black pepper, red pepper, basil, garlic, oregano, thyme, nutmeg, ginger, turmeric, rosemary, and cumin) and basic kitchen tools like hot plates, slow cookers, and measuring cups. The focus of Spice MyPlate was to use the spices to increase the students’ desire and ability to prepare and eat healthy food. 

One group received a standard one-hour nutrition education class focusing on the USDA MyPlate guidelines, while the other received this standard nutrition education class plus the Spice MyPlate curriculum, which consisted of six weekly one-hour class lectures, a tour of the local grocery store, and two hours of cooking sessions with a professional chef. 

The idea was to use spices and herbs to make healthy nutrition more fun and simple for students — they created recipe ideas and flavor combinations, and participated in how-to cooking sessions, group activities, and educational games. Both groups recorded their dietary intake in food logs. From the beginning to end of the study, the Spice MyPlate group increased whole grain consumption by nearly 23 grams per week, and protein by nearly 8 grams. The standard nutrition education group did not see any significant increases. 

The study also found changes in students’ attitudes towards healthy eating. Those in the Spice MyPlate group said they were more likely to eat lean protein and vegetables, and to eat vegetables and whole grains if flavored with spices and herbs. 

“Spice MyPlate is an innovation in nutrition education, where group work and creativity merge,” D’Adamo said. “It is a step forward in the national health movement, indicating how small, time-efficient, school-based lessons focusing on spices and herbs can lead to healthier eating.” 

The approach is part of a new educational approach that combines collaboration with the community and traditional classroom teaching. The goal is to make health topics more relevant for urban African-American adolescents. 

“Today, diet-related disease is the biggest killer in the United States and affects countries worldwide,” said Dean E. Albert Reece, MD, PhD, MBA, who is also the vice president for Medical Affairs, University of Maryland, and the John Z. and Akiko K. Bowers Distinguished Professor and Dean of the School of Medicine. “It is critical that we tackle obesity now. With this innovative research, Dr. D’Adamo has successfully demonstrated how this can be achieved.” 

The study was funded by McCormick Science Institute, which supports research on the health benefits of culinary herbs and spices.  

About the University of Maryland School of Medicine 

The University of Maryland School of Medicine was chartered in 1807 and is the first public medical school in the United States and continues today as an innovative leader in accelerating innovation and discovery in medicine. The School of Medicine is the founding school of the University of Maryland and is an integral part of the 11-campus University System of Maryland. Located on the University of Maryland’s Baltimore campus, the School of Medicine works closely with the University of Maryland Medical Center and Medical System to provide a research-intensive, academic and clinically based education. With 43 academic departments, centers and institutes and a faculty of more than 3,000 physicians and research scientists plus more than $400 million in extramural funding, the School is regarded as one of the leading biomedical research institutions in the U.S. with top-tier faculty and programs in cancer, brain science, surgery and transplantation, trauma and emergency medicine, vaccine development and human genomics, among other centers of excellence. The School is not only concerned with the health of the citizens of Maryland and the nation, but also has a global presence, with research and treatment facilities in more than 35 countries around the world.


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