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.

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.

Red Berry Chicken with Tah-chin

Tah-chin Morgh

Saffron rice with red berry chicken, known as Tah-chin Morgh, is one of the 40 recipes from the book Diet for the Educated, written by Ashrafzadeh with her mother and sister. The book features healthier versions of traditional Persian dishes.

Tah-chin (a Persian rice cake)

2 cups rice
2 cups water
2 cups plain yogurt (homemade preferred) drained. Reserve the water to use to cook the rice.
1/2t saffron milled or powder
1TB Olive oil

Place the rice, yogurt, and water (or drained water out of yogurt), saffron powder, and olive oil in a rice cooker or pot with a tight-fitting lid. Cook 15-20 minutes or until the liquid is absorbed.

Serve with Red Berry Chicken. Recipe in next column.

Red Berry Chicken

2 pounds chicken breast
2 yellow onions
1/2 red berberis, dried sour cherries or currants soaked in lemon juice
1/2c raisins
1/2t saffron (powdered)
2t olive oil
1/2c water

Heat a steel pot on the stove at medium-high. Trim off excess fat on chicken and cut chicken breasts into two-inch pieces. Once the pan is hot enough to seal the chicken meat at touch point,* put the chicken, oil, and sliced onions into the pot. Reduce the heat and cover the pot, and let it cook until the onions start to brown. Add saffron and the red berries and less than half a cup boiling water (gets absorbed by the dried red berries) and the raisins. Serve on top of the saffron rice.

*Test: place a drop of water into the hot pan. If the water evaporates in less than 3 seconds, it is time to add the chicken to the pan.

Notes: The small amount of raisins adds a hint of sweetness to this dish, and since they are mixed with the sour berries and chicken, the dish still has a low glycemic index. This meal is suitable for not only diabetic patients, but also for those with hypertension (high blood pressure) since it does not use salt. The calcium in the drained water from the yogurt will help reduce blood pressure, and the sour flavor of the yogurt drain is a good substitute for lack of salt in the rice.