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Using Herbs and Spices

By Nicci Micco

Using Herbs and Spices

Fill up with delicious food while you slim down. It sounds too good to be true, but when you eat a meal that truly tastes good, you're happy having a moderate amount, says Milton Stokes, MPH, a registered dietitian in the Bronx, New York. Your spice rack, which allows you to cook without fatty enhancements like cream and butter, holds the key to success. The secret? You cut calories without losing flavor. Plus, plant-based seasonings offer more (and arguably more important) benefits than just a thinner body. They've been linked to reduced risks for heart disease, diabetes, and cancer -- probably due to the antioxidant, anti-inflammatory properties of phytochemicals in all plant foods, explains Karen Collins, RD, nutrition adviser for the American Institute for Cancer Research. Pump up the flavor in your dishes with this guide to superstar spices and healthy herbs.

Spicy Tips

Cinnamon
cinnamon sticks
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Alison Miksch
Photos by Alison Miksch

Antioxidant and antibacterial properties help explain a University of Illinois at Chicago study that suggests cinnamon-flavored gum may fight bad breath. According to U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) researchers, the spice may also aid in glucose control: Having as little as 1/2 teaspoon of cinnamon daily may improve blood glucose levels and lower cholesterol, particularly in people with type 2 diabetes.

Spice Up Your Diet

Sprinkle it on squash or sweet potatoes, or add to coffee grounds before you brew.

Try: Blueberry Hot Cereal

Instead of: instant oatmeal

Slim-down recipe: Combine 1/2 cup rolled oats and 1 cup of water and cook. Stir in 1/2 cup of frozen blueberries and 1/2 teaspoon of cinnamon.

You save: 100 calories.

Chili Powder
chili peppers
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Alison Miksch

Capsaicin, found in chili peppers, works as an appetite suppressant. A recent study from the Netherlands found that when people drank tomato juice spiked with hot pepper over a two-day period, they consumed up to 16 percent fewer calories over the next two days and felt more satisfied than when they consumed a blander version of the same juice. Capsaicin has been shown to be an effective anti-inflammatory, a potent antioxidant, and a promising cancer fighter. Last March, scientists at the University of California, Los Angeles, found that giving mice this compound caused prostate cancer cells to self-destruct.

Spice Up Your Diet

Sprinkle chili powder on tomato soup, macaroni and cheese, or corn on the cob, or add hot sauce to eggs and omelets.

Try: Spicy Hummus

Instead of: creamy dressing

Slim-down recipe: Mix 1/2 teaspoon of chili powder into a small tub of commercially prepared hummus. Scoop out a two-tablespoon serving and bring on the veggies.

Rosemary
garlic and rosemary
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Alison Miksch

This "pine-y"-flavored herb boasts high levels of antioxidant activity, thanks to two powerful free-radical eliminators -- carnosol and rosmarinic acid. Research shows that rosemary may help fight cancers of the breast, lung, and skin. The herb may also offer a promising food safety feature: Its antioxidant activity may reduce the production of heterocyclic amines, carcinogens that form when meats are cooked at extremely high temperatures (like on a grill).

Spice Up Your Diet

Mix it in an aromatic marinade for grilled chicken; spruce up stuffing with a couple of teaspoons, or use fresh sprigs as skewers for shish kebabs on the grill (just be sure to soak them in water first so they don't catch fire).

Try: Rosemary-Spiced Red Potatoes

Instead of: potato chips and dip

Slim-down recipe: Slice four medium-size red potatoes into six wedges each. Toss with 2 teaspoons olive oil, 1 teaspoon crushed dried rosemary, and a pinch of salt. Bake at 450 degrees, stirring occasionally, until the potatoes are tender and the edges are crisp (makes four servings; six wedges each).

You save: 66 calories, 13 fat grams.

Garlic
garlic and rosemary
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Alison Miksch

Garlic has earned fame as a powerful health helper. It's rich in organosulfur compounds with high levels of antioxidant activity and releases the antibiotic allicin when chopped or crushed. British researchers recently reviewed all clinical trials published since 1993 on garlic's effects on cardiovascular disease and concluded that, despite some mixed findings, science suggests that garlic reduces cholesterol and thins the blood, lowering the risk of heart disease and stroke; and increases levels of disease-fighting antioxidants in the body. Research also suggests that garlic may help fight cancer. According to a study from Annamalai University in India, it's especially powerful when combined with the chemicals in tomatoes.

Spice Up Your Diet

Sprinkle chopped or crushed garlic on pizza; add it to salsas, sauces, and marinades; or roast whole cloves and spread on a crusty loaf of bread instead of butter.

Try: Tomato Salad

Instead of: potato salad

Slim-down recipe: Chop and seed six fresh tomatoes (approximately 2 pounds), mix with 1 tablespoon olive oil, two minced cloves of garlic, and red wine vinegar to taste (makes approximately four 1-cup servings).

You save: 292 calories, 17 fat grams.

Curry Powder
curry powder
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Alison Miksch

Turmeric, an ingredient in curry powder, contains curcumin. This phytochemical helps thwart cancer by "switching off" proteins that cause cells to multiply and by inducing cancer cells to self-destruct. The spice may also reduce risk of Alzheimer's, psoriasis, and arthritis.

Spice Up Your Diet

Add it to bean-based soups, stir into plain yogurt for an exotic dip, or sprinkle on pineapple slices and grill for a tasty side dish.

Try: Curry Tuna Crunch

Instead of: tuna salad

Slim-down recipe: Mix 1 tablespoon low-fat mayo with 1 tablespoon plain low-fat yogurt, one 6-ounce can of water-packed chunk light tuna (drained), 1/4 to 1/2 teaspoon of curry powder, 1 tablespoon chopped walnuts, 1/4 tart apple (chopped), and 1 tablespoon chopped celery.

You save: 181 calories, 14 fat grams.

Cumin
cumin powder
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Alison Miksch

A main player in Indian, Mexican, Caribbean, and North African cuisines, this antioxidant-rich spice has been shown to lower blood glucose levels. It may also protect against stomach ulcers and gastric cancer by killing the H. pylori bacteria.

Spice Up Your Diet

Add cumin to enchiladas and tacos, rub it on meats, or sprinkle it on scrambled eggs.

Try: Tex-Mex Black Beans

Instead of: baked beans

Slim-down recipe: Mix together one 16-ounce can of black beans; one 15-ounce can of corn, both drained and rinsed; 1/2 cup of jarred "chunky" salsa; 1 to 2 teaspoons ground cumin; the juice of one lime; 1 tablespoon olive oil; and salt and pepper to taste (makes four servings, just under 1 cup each).

You save: 145 calories, 8 fat grams.

Oregano
oregano
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Alison Miksch

This aromatic herb, most often associated with Italian and Greek cuisines, contains quercetin and rosmarinic acids, both strong antioxidants. Scientists at the USDA have shown that 1 tablespoon of fresh oregano offers as much antioxidant activity as a medium-size apple. In fact, gram for gram, oregano packs the biggest antioxidant punch of any culinary herb. Although experts aren't sure whether dried oregano has the same level as fresh, it won't hurt to add either to your diet -- especially since other research suggests that it may protect against breast, ovarian, and endometrial cancers.

Spice Up Your Diet

Sprinkle fresh or dried oregano on pizza, add to oven-roasted veggies, or mix it into low-fat plain yogurt with garlic and lemon juice for a Greek-inspired grilled-sandwich spread.

Try: Mediterranean Eggs

Instead of: a cheddar omelet

Slim-down recipe: Whisk together one whole egg and two egg whites, and pour into a medium skillet coated with nonfat cooking spray. When partially set, sprinkle with 1/2 ounce of feta cheese, one small diced plum tomato, and 1/4 to 1/2 teaspoon dried oregano.

You save: 122 calories, 13 fat grams.

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