Why do humans enjoy spicy food so much? From chili pepper eating competitions to adding hot sauce onto a burrito at a restaurant, many people gravitate towards food with a painful kick. Is there any benefit to food that makes us sweat profusely, or is it just a personal preference?
The Benefits of Eating Spicy Food
No pain, no gain? Believe it or not, there are actually a handful of health benefits to eating spicy foods! Spicy foods boast a lot of health benefits, from boosting longevity, to aiding in weight loss, to reducing inflammation throughout the body.
Longer Life Span
A 2015 study even linked the regular consumption of spicy food with a longer lifespan. In the study, researchers gathered data on health and diet from 487,375 different Chinese people between the ages of 30 and 79. The results showed that people who ate spicy food regularly (nearly every day) had a 14% chance of living longer than those who eat spicy foods less than once a week! The results also suggested that those who eat spicy food regularly are less likely to die from cancer or respiratory and heart diseases. 1
Purdue University conducted a study in 2011 that tested the effects of red pepper on appetite and weight loss. The study included 25 people of average weight, 13 of which enjoyed spicy food and 12 who did not. During the six week study, participants added half a teaspoon of ground cayenne pepper to their daily consumption. The study found that overall, cayenne pepper increased core body temperature and helped burn more calories. Those who did not regularly eat spicy foods experience reduced sense of hunger. 2
The American Association for Cancer Research has found that capsaicin has the ability to kill off cancer cells, especially those of prostate cancer. The amount of capsaicin needed to be effective against cancer cells is higher than the average human would consume, so this is more effective when taken in capsule form. 3
Boost Heart Health
A 2011 study from Penn State University found that meals that were heavily spiced - versus plain - can do wonders for heart health. Elevated levels of triglycerides (a type of fat) are a high-risk factor for heart disease. The study found that meals that contained a lot of spice helped to reduce levels of triglycerides and insulin levels. This was even true for meals that contained a lot of fat! The average decrease of triglycerides was approximately one third. Spices used in this study included garlic, oregano, paprika, rosemary, and ginger. 4
Many spices boast anti-inflammatory properties, which can do wonders for inflammatory conditions such as arthritis. Curcumin, the main component in turmeric, has been known to have anti-inflammatory, analgesic, antitumor, and antioxidant properties. Both garlic and ginger are also known for their anti-inflammatory benefits. 5
Studies have shown that capsaicin can actually inhibit acid production in the stomach! While this seems counter-intuitive, capsaicin can actually be used as a natural medication for ulcer prevention, especially for those who are taking non-steroid anti-inflammatory drugs. Capsaicin can stimulate mucus secretion and gastric mucous blood flow, which help both prevent and treat stomach ulcers. 6
Negative Effects of Spicy Foods
There are not a whole lot of negative aspects of spicy foods (unless you simply can’t handle the heat), but those who are on blood thinning medications should be particularly wary of adding too much capsaicin to the diet. Capsaicin is a natural blood thinner, but this is not a problem for those who are generally healthy. For those who are currently on a blood thinning medication, too much capsaicin can possibly thin the blood too much. 7
Of course, one of the most obvious negative aspects of spicy foods is the persistent burning off your taste buds. This is especially true if you’re adding some of the hotter peppers to your meal (habaneros, ghost peppers, etc). Chugging a glass of water will do nothing to ease the burn. Instead, try taking a few sips of whole milk!
If you can’t handle even a dash of cayenne pepper or a small bite of a jalapeño without tears welling up in your eyes, the health benefits of spicy foods may not outweigh the discomfort. Luckily, you don’t need to add a pinch of ghost pepper to your meal to benefit from spices. Turmeric, ginger, cumin and other “less hot” spices can also add a huge boost to your health! . This gives you the opportunity to gain the benefits of spices through aromatherapy. Try experimenting with a few of these spices and gradually build up to the hotter ones. You may find that plain foods just don’t cut it anymore!
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