Featured in: Fitness & Weight Management  |  July 25, 2016

Some Like It Hot

Peppers are full of flavor & health benefits including as an aid in weight loss.

By Jodi Helmer   |   Edited by Amy Edel-Vaughn

Fiery. Spicy. Hot. Pungent. Mild. There are countless ways to describe the flavors of hot peppers and countless ways to incorporate them into your diet. Whether you chop them for salsa, stuff them or pickle them, there are significant health benefits to eating hot peppers. 

In addition to being chock-full of vitamin D, vitamin C, potassium, fiber and beta-carotene, research has linked eating hot peppers with reduced blood pressure and cholesterol. Chiles contain red and orange pigments called carotenoids that are believed to protect against cancer. 

Eating hot peppers might also help to reduce pain, according to Beth Warren, MS, RDN, CDN, founder and CEO of Beth Warren Nutrition and author of Living Real Life with Real Food (Skyhorse).

“You release endorphins [when you eat hot peppers] to block the pain from the heat, which is why they are used to help treat all kinds of arthritis pain, as well as for neuropathic pain and dermatologic conditions that have a painful itch,” Warren explains.

What’s more, hot pepper consumption has been found to decrease appetite and increase metabolism. This has led to interest in employing these taste bud sizzlers as a possible path to weight loss.

Metabolic Step-Up

Hot peppers contain capsaicin, a compound that gives chiles their heat. While hot peppers aren’t a magic bullet for weight loss, capsaicin has been shown to boost metabolism while helping the body burn fat.

In 2015, researchers at the University of Wyoming presented study results at a meeting of the Biophysical Society. The study team had found that adding capsaicin to the diets of mice prevented weight gain and stimulated the production of brown fat, a type of fat that burns calories (technically known as thermogenesis). The group reported that “dietary capsaicin suppresses high-fat-diet-induced obesity.”

These results appear to support the findings of an earlier study conducted at the University of California, Los Angeles in 2010. In a paper presented to that year’s Experimental Biology meeting, the UCLA team reported that adding hot peppers to a meal helped burn more calories.

Some experts, though, believe you shouldn’t make hot pepper consumption your only line of defense against excess weight. “These effects are likely minimal,” says Kelly Pritchett, PhD, RDN, assistant professor of nutrition and exercise science at Central Washington University and national media spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.

Capsaicin’s Other Benefits

Besides encouraging fat burning and increased metabolism, there are other reasons to consume hot peppers and the capsaicin they contain.

In animal research, capsaicin has been shown to improve digestion. One study reported that capsaicin inhibited acid secretion and stimulated mucus in the gastric tract, helping to prevent and heal ulcers—and forever dispelling the myth that eating hot peppers causes ulcers and stomach upset.

There is even research that eating these fiery foods will help you live longer. In a 2015 BMJ study, Harvard researchers followed more than 20,000 people for seven years and found that those who ate spicy foods like fresh and dried chile peppers at least six times per week had a 14% lower risk of death from all causes than those who incorporated spicy foods into their diets less than once a week. 

People who are taking prescription medication for cardiovascular problems may want to take heed when it comes to chile consumption, however. “Capsaicin is a blood thinner, so if someone is on blood thinning medication such as warfarin, they need to be careful,” Warren advises.

Heating Up the Kitchen

Of course, what makes the health benefits of chiles easy to swallow is the fact that they taste great. “Hot peppers are a nutrient-dense way to add flavor to dishes without packing on extra calories,” notes Pritchett.

Hot peppers are also versatile in the kitchen because different varieties offer different flavor profiles and heat levels. Examples include:

Ghost: Also known as Bhut Jolokia, this super-hot pepper was listed in the Guinness World Records from 2007 to 2011 as the hottest pepper in the world. The pepper, which ranges from green to orange and red, originated in India. It’s often used in fiery hot sauces and chili powder. Because of its extreme heat, eating it raw is not recommended.

Pueblo: These mild peppers originated in New Mexico. The pods grow in a pendant shape and come in green and red. Pueblo peppers are often used in fresh salsas and sauces, and are also available powdered, roasted or processed. 

Serrano: A Spanish word that means “from the mountains,” these hot peppers were once grown in the mountains of Mexico. Serranos are pendant-shaped and come in green and red. These are the peppers found in “hot” salsa and other fiery Mexican cuisine.

Jalapeño: One of the more common peppers, jalapeños come from Veracruz, Mexico. These medium-heat peppers are used fresh, pickled or processed.

Habanero: These put the “hot” in hot pepper and are about 50 times hotter than jalapeños. The name, which means “from Havana,” hints at their Cuban heritage. Habaneros are popular in chili powder, hot sauces and rubbed seasonings.

Pepper heat has its own index. Called Scoville units after American chemist William Scoville, who devised the system in 1912, this measurement provides a way of judging how hot a pepper is based on its capsaicin content. Sweet bell peppers, which have no capsaicin, rate a 0. Jalapeños come in at 3,500 to 8,000 Scovilles, which sounds hot enough until one learns that ghost peppers rate a tongue-incinerating 1 million Scoville units.

If you have a favorite pepper, don’t be afraid to mix it up and try something new. “People tend to seek out the heat level that makes them the happiest and don’t experiment with other varieties,” says Dave DeWitt, food historian and co-author of The Field Guide to Peppers (Timber).

Also experiment with different ways to use chiles. If you only think of them as a salsa ingredient, for example, feel free to add them to one-skillet dishes or soups.

As long as you don’t overdo it, hot peppers make a great addition to a healthy diet. “The one thing I hear a lot is, ‘I didn’t know how delicious hot peppers could be,’” says DeWitt. “The more press hot peppers get, the more people’s initial reluctance to trying them diminishes.

You’ll quickly realize that they add an element to a dish that no other food can.”

 

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