The Fight for a Healthier, Tastier Cuisine
May 19, 2014 | by Maryanne George
When Mahdi Nasseh first arrived in the United States, he suffered from diabetes and hypertension—serious diseases that can cause stroke, heart attack, kidney failure, and blindness. Nasseh’s daughter, Kia Ashrafzadeh, who had been a practicing physician in Iran, brought her father to her home in St. Joseph, Michigan, hoping to improve his health.
Sepideh Ashrafzadeh (’14) watched her mother Kia use food as medicine, reducing the fat, salt, and sugar in the family’s traditional Persian recipes. In one recipe Kia used saffron instead of egg yolks and yogurt rather than oil. Nasseh liked the food and his health improved.
Inspired by the power of healthy food choices and her mother’s example, Ashrafzadeh decided to pursue a career in public health.
“My dad’s father and uncles died of heart attacks by the age of 43,” explains Ashrafzadeh, who graduated in May 2014 with a Bachelor of Science degree in biomolecular science through the LSA Honors Program. “My mother showed us how to change our diets and now my dad is in his 50s and doing well. She has a husband, and we have a father. Healthy behaviors can impact so many people.”
Helping people understand the connection between diet and health has become Ashrafzadeh’s life’s work. After graduation she will begin a fellowship at Harvard University’s School of Public Health, researching global dietary patterns, health policy, and the economic benefits of healthy diets.
She plans to become a doctor and work on health policy in the Middle East, where diabetes and heart disease are rampant. “Six of the top 10 countries with the highest rates of diabetes are in the Middle East,” she says. “Most of the cases are among women. There are strict social norms that require them to cover and that makes it hard to exercise. I hope to be one of the people who changes that.”
Passion and Vision
When Ashrafzadeh arrived at U-M in 2010, she was unsure of what to study. Through LSA’s Undergraduate Research Opportunity Program, she connected with Dr. Sofia Merajver, a professor of internal medicine and epidemiology and director of the Breast and Ovarian Cancer Risk and Evaluation Program at U-M’s Cancer Center, who became Ashrafzadeh’s mentor. She has worked in Dr. Merajver’s laboratory for the last four years.
“Sepideh is a creative, dedicated young scientist with the ability to understand the context of the work she does in the lab or the world of global health,” Dr. Merajver says. “She is a leader with vision and passion.”
In 2012, Ashrafzadeh won a grant to conduct diabetes workshops in Iran with her mother. The participants, mostly women, were taught how to prepare low-fat, low-salt Persian cuisine and adopt healthier behaviors. Within two weeks, the workshop members’ blood glucose levels dropped significantly. Ashrafzadeh collaborated with her mother and sister to revise 40 Persian recipes and published them as a cookbook, Diet for the Educated in Iran.
Back on campus in 2013, Ashrafzadeh became the meal planner for her student co-op Henderson House and created a healthier menu. She replaced high-fat brownies with a fat-free version and served fruit for dessert. Brown rice replaced white rice. Tacos were filled with lentils, rice, and cauliflower instead of meat and cheese. Salads were made with shredded kale, pecans, and cranberries.
“At first, some girls complained but most of them liked the healthier food,” she says. “By the second year, the new girls didn’t know anything was different.”
Ashrafzadeh, a member of the Shipman Society and Phi Beta Kappa, is a frequent volunteer and recipient of numerous awards. “I am involved in many things,” she says. “But the common theme is nutrition, health and behavior. It ties everything together.”
Henry Dyson, senior advisor and scholarship coordinator for the LSA Honors Program, sees Ashrafzadeh as an exemplary student.
“She’s a published author in both biomedical research for breast cancer and public health for metabolic disease,” says Dyson. “She has a deep love of Persian fiction and poetry. She is conversant in multiple languages, has a broad global perspective, and a strong commitment to working for the public good.
“In many ways, she exemplifies all of LSA’s educational ideals.”
Photos courtesy of Sepideh Ashrafzadeh.