Teach Me

Are Spicy Foods Healthier?

You sit a little taller than everyone else when you hold all five fingers up to the server. But you don’t order spicy food for the adoration of your tablemates. You do it for the health benefits. Any adoration is just an added benefit.

People who enjoy their flavors with extra spice may be happy to hear that their bodies appreciate the heat as well. Elise Heeney is a clinical dietitian at Banner Del E Webb Medical Center in Sun City, Arizona. She helped answer a few common questions about spicy foods.

What makes food spicy?

There are many different ingredients and chemical compounds that can provide “heat” to your dish. The most common is capsaicin, the compound behind chili pepper. Piperine is the compound behind black pepper and gingerol is what gives a kick to ginger. There are many other types of spice out there and each one offers unique notes to refined pallets and foodies around the world. Although the health benefits can be similar, Heeney spoke specifically to the perks of a diet including capsaicin.

Healthy benefits

  • Improved metabolism – “Adding capsaicin to your diet is no replacement for exercise or healthy eating, but it may be beneficial for weight loss,” said Heeney. “Capsaicin activates brown adipose tissue (BAT), boosting metabolism and promoting fat burning.”
  • Anti-inflammatory – Long-term inflammation in your body can lead to serious issues down the road. Our diets often include an excess of inflammatory ingredients such as sugar. Swapping sugar for spice is a great step in improving the lifelong health of your body. Heeney commented that “capsaicin is even being included in anti-inflammatory topical creams. Research is showing that capsaicin may reduce neuropathy and arthritis pain.”
  • Gut health – Contrary to what you might assume, capsaicin and some other spicy foods could actually improve chronic indigestion. “Capsaicin inhibits stomach acid secretion and stimulates gastric mucosal blood flow which helps in prevention and healing of gastric ulcers,” said Heeney. Of course, every person’s body is different. If you have gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD), you may be particularly sensitive to spicy foods and may need to avoid them.
  • Other benefits – A cursory Google search of the benefits of a spicy diet will list just about every health benefit you can imagine. Other claims include pain relief, improved heart health, greater longevity and many more. It’s enough to make you want to keep a packet of pepper in your pocket wherever you go.

Is spicy the answer?

Of course, adding extra crushed red pepper to your slice of Meat Lover’s pizza won’t transform it into a stick of celery. Heeney was sure to explain that spicy foods are not a one-food-fix-all solution. It’s important to consider the overall quality of your diet and make sure it is low in processed foods, and includes plenty of fresh fruits and vegetables, lean proteins, and whole grains.

Looking for more tips for your healthy diet? Check out these similar articles written with the help of Banner Health dietitians and nutritionists.

Gastroenterology Nutrition Wellness