Science Course Cooks Up Health

Elaine Lai ’78
Susan Chaityn Lebovits
Elaine Lai ’78

If you’re curious about what causes gluten allergy, the chemical structure and function of omega-3 fatty acids, or how to make a killer spring roll, Elaine Lai’s Diet and Health class has you covered.

Inspired by her own success at lowering her cholesterol through diet and exercise, Lai ’78, a molecular biologist and lecturer, proposed a new biology course three years ago for nonscience majors interested in health and diet. “Instead of teaching about programmed cell death and cancer, which I hope most people will never have to worry about, I thought about nutrition,” says Lai.

By last summer, the class had tripled in size, prompting Lai to beef up the course and gear it toward science majors. The spring semester’s Diet and Health (Biology 55B) class was fast-paced, chock-full of useful science — and delicious. Students learned to cook a few meals and were able to access healthy recipes through the university’s server.

Lai started off the course with the basics, teaching students about proteins, carbohydrates, lipids (fats), vitamins and minerals, and gradually delving into the digestive process from the first morsel of food that enters the mouth through the end product. After learning about the biological consequences of poor nutrition, many students, like Logan Uretsky ’11 — who decided to cut back on diet soda after learning about its possible link to heart disease — were persuaded to improve their own eating habits. Says Allison Corman- Vogan ’11, “After seeing how some members of my family have been negatively affected by their poor eating habits, I want to establish better eating habits while I’m young.”

Enter the hands-on cooking class, designed precisely to help students achieve better nutrition. On a Sunday afternoon in Ridgewood this spring, while some students chopped, sliced and diced their way through piles of fresh vegetables, others assembled spring rolls made with slightly blanched carrots, cucumbers and scrambled eggs housed in rice wrappers. The students even learned how to roll sushi.

“Being healthy and eating right have not always been important to me,” says Ronit Broekman ’11. “But as I’m getting older, it’s become more apparent that I need to take care of myself. I hope to incorporate all that I’ve learned in this class into everyday life after I leave Brandeis.”