If you wonder why 72% of the US population is overweight or obese, a good portion of the blame goes to a steady diet of foods that are high in saturated fat and/or refined carbohydrates. Not surprisingly, a regular diet of these same foods also has been linked to chronic inflammation, which increases risk for cardiovascular disease (CVD).

Switching to a diet that’s low in saturated fat and refined carbs seems like an obvious solution. But as anyone who’s ever tried to stick to such a diet will tell you, that’s not always easy. So for those occasional lapses when a person indulges in a high-fat, high-carb meal, could there be a way to blunt the negative health effects?

To explore this question, researchers at Pennsylvania State University devised a study to test how spices might affect the body’s response to one of those less-than-healthful meals. The researchers recruited 12 men ages 40 to 65 who were overweight or obese and had at least one CVD risk factor.

Study details: Over the course of three days, the men ate a series of high-fat, high-carb meals and received blood tests before and after the meals to measure their levels of proteins known as cytokines, which serve as markers for inflammation. In random order, participants were given meals that did not have any spices added…had 2 grams (g) of a spice blend added…or had 6 g of the same spice blend added. The spice blend contained basil, bay leaf, black pepper, cinnamon, coriander, cumin, ginger, oregano, parsley, red pepper, rosemary, thyme and turmeric.

The result: After giving blood tests to the study participants hourly for four hours after each meal, the researchers found that the 6 g spice-blended meals significantly reduced cytokine levels compared with the other meals. The 6 g spice blend was roughly equivalent to one teaspoon to one tablespoon, depending on the spice’s level of dehydration.

Although this study, which was published in The Journal of Nutrition, did not identify which spices work best to lower inflammation, numerous animal and human studies have shown that spices such as turmeric, ginger and cinnamon have anti-inflammatory properties.

Earlier research has shown that meals that are high in fat, carbs and/or sugar lead to spikes in inflammation, known as acute inflammation. It’s not known whether these short bursts of inflammation result in chronic inflammation, but the researchers theorize that they do play a role, especially in people who are overweight or obese.

“Ultimately the gold standard would be to get people eating more healthfully and to lose weight and exercise, but those behavior changes are difficult and take time,” said Connie J. Rogers, PhD, MPH, lead author of the study and an associate professor of nutritional sciences at Pennsylvania State University. In the interim, the study finding suggests that spices may be an effective and convenient way to at least help reduce the inflammation that results from a high-carb, high-fat meal. Even though this study was small, the researchers hope that larger studies with a more diverse population will support their findings.

Takeaway: The best way to avoid obesity and cardiovascular disease is to exercise, reduce calories and eat a diet that includes lots of vegetables, fruits and whole grains. For that occasional indulgence, adding some spice to your moussaka or lasagna could make your meal both tastier and healthier.

Source: The study “Spices in a High-Saturated-Fat, High-Carbohydrate Meal Reduce Postprandial Proinflammatory Cytokine Secretion in Men with Overweight or Obesity: A 3-Period, Crossover, Randomized Controlled Trial,” led by researchers at Pennsylvania State University in University Park and published in the The Journal of Nutrition.