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Health benefits of eating curry

Curries have been popular for thousands of years. But evidence suggests they do more than satisfy your appetite.

The earliest known mention of a curry – a spicy sauce with meat and bread – is etched onto tablets found in Babylon dating back to around 1700BC. Curries have been cooked for thousands of years, and the British have now rapidly adopted it as their National Dish. But the curry may contain more health benefits than at first glance.

Evidence suggests that it can benefit the heart, have a positive effect on sufferers of diabetes and may even diminish the effect of cancer cells.

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How Indian Food May Benefit the Heart

In a study reported by the Daily Mail in 2008, the vivid yellow spice turmeric was credited with preventing heart failure in mice and also assisting in repair of the heart. They attributed this extraordinary power to the compound within turmeric, called “curcumin”. Turmeric, a relative of the ginger root, is one of the key spices used in Indian cuisine, and gives curry and rice its familiar yellow colour and a fragrant flavour. Turmeric has also been used as a cleanser for thousands of years and is also believed to help liver function and arthritis, as an anti-inflammatory.

It is also worth remembering that the Indian diet contains ghee, a clarified butter used freely in the place of the cooking oil we use in the west. Certain curries can contain a lot of cream, nuts, and butter so could be high in saturated fat, which of course has an adverse effect on the heart. In saying this, if prepared carefully and with lean meat, dishes containing turmeric may well be a worthwhile addition to the diet.

Turmeric Linked to a Reduced Incidence of Alzheimer’s Disease

It is the same curcumin which is also believed to prevent Alzheimer’s Disease. Studies by the University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA) have shown that when curcumin is given to ageing mice, the plaques that coat the brain that lead to Alzheimer’s are blocked. Although research has only been carried out on mice, the indications for humans are mind-blowing.

As a relatively cheap spice, it is surprising that something so freely available could hold such important qualities for health. It has been reported in the Medical News (December 2004) that the occurrence of Alzheimer's in adults in India aged between 70-79 years was indeed 4.4 times less than the same age group in the US. With diet being the main difference between the two groups and with the research mentioned above, the results certainly look promising.

Chillies and Diabetes

Chillies are of course, a widely used ingredient in Indian Cuisine. They add heat to a dish and there are many different varieties, with varying heat scales. The University of Tasmania discovered in 2006 that there was a positive effect on subjects’ insulin levels after eating a meal that contained chillies. The researchers could not fully explain the reason for this, but indicated that it is thought that a compound in chillies may react with the liver, subsequently altering insulin production.

Other ingredients used in Indian foods which may help regulate blood sugar levels include garlic, pulses, green leafy vegetables, beans and yoghurt. Yoghurt is in used in cooking to cool down the hot taste of a curry or to make a dip, such as a raita. It has been reported that the bacteria that exists in yoghurt helps to regulate the pancreas which in turn helps to regulate insulin levels.

The Effect of the Indian Diet on Cancer Cells

It is widely accepted that in order to combat and reduce the risk of cancer, we should incorporate a wide variety of fruit and vegetables into our diet. In Indian cuisine, vegetables are used widely, sometimes even as a meal in their own right, for example in Bombay Potatoes or Saag Aloo (spinach cooked with potatoes in spices). Desserts are also often lighter and fruit based, rather than in the form of the stodgy pies or custards popular in the West.

The Indian diet is also high in pulses. Chickpeas and lentils are added to curries for their protein content and for bulk. Onions are used widely in Indian cooking, and are thought to contain a compound called quercetin. This is a powerful antioxidant that can help combat prostrate, colon and breast cancer as well as the more common colds and coughs.

Can Indian Food Benefit Our Health?

Spices used in Indian cooking have certainly been used for thousands of years to alleviate coughs, colds, inflammation and other symptoms. As many of the studies have so far only been carried out on mice in a laboratory, the effect these spices and foods have on humans must be regarded with some caution, but still with anticipation. People are constantly searching for more natural remedies for all manner of ailments, and it could be that the foods discussed here might hold the key.

Studies have shown that these foods may benefit the heart, reduce the effects of diabetes and lower the incidence of some cancers as well as halt Alzheimer’s and alleviate arthritis. Any diet low in fat and high in vegetables, fruits and lean meat is a good step to take in benefiting health. Or it may be just another good excuse for a curry!

Article originally posted on Suite101.com and reproduced by kind permission of Jo Romero