A new study links spicy meals to a longer life, but there are actually many reasons heating things up can be great for you. Here are 6 facts that just might surprise you.
Spicy foods are hot, pun intended. According to a report from Technomic, the majority of consumers (54%) say that hot or spicy foods are appealing, up from 46% in 2009, and the trend is popular across nearly all age ranges. The NPD Group says 56% of U.S. households keep hot sauce in their kitchens, and it seems that everyone, from restaurants to food companies are spicing up their offerings, from ghost pepper ice cream to roasted jalapeno KIND bars.
Turns out, in addition to rousing your taste buds, all of this spicy stuff may be great for you, according to a new study that linked spicy food intake to a longer life. Researchers from the Chinese Academy of Medical Sciences looked at the diets of nearly half a million men and women over seven years, and found that people who ate spicy foods almost every day had a 14% lower risk of death, compared to people who added heat to their meal less than once a week. The protective effect was similar in both men and women, and stronger for those who did not consume alcohol. Among women, frequently downing spicy foods was linked to a lower risk of death specifically from cancer, as well as heart and respiratory diseases.
The study authors call for more research to determine if the results are the directly related to spicy food, or if perhaps they're a marker for other lifestyle factors. But even still, right now there are many reasons to heat things up. Still need convincing? Here are six facts that just might surprise you.
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You can learn to love them
Many people don't love spicy foods, I know. But if you're one of them, hear me out.
When I met my husband, mild salsa was too hot for me. But he's a fire-eater from Texas who can happily down more than one whole habañero at a time, so I set out to build my tolerance. The best way to do it is to start small, and slowly up the heat from both fresh peppers and spices, which are rated according to a scale called Scoville. Scoville heat units correspond to the amount of capsaicin, the substance that gives hot food its fire.
For example, a bell pepper, which isn't spicy at all, scores a 0. Low on the scale are pepperoncino at 100 to 500 units, then Anaheim peppers at 500 to 1,000, and Pablanos at 1,000 to 1,500. Jalapeños, which can vary in hotness, rate between 2,500 and 8,000. You get the idea. (For the record, going up the scale are serranos, cayenne peppers, Thai peppers, scotch bonnet, habañeros, and then crazy hot varieties, like scorpion peppers, which are about 200 times hotter than a jalapeño.)
I doubt I'll ever polish off a whole habañero like my hubby, but after experimenting, I now enjoy using small amounts of whole or dried peppers in cooking. I fold diced jalapeño into guacamole, add crushed red pepper or a small amount of minced chili pepper to stir frys, and season veggie chili with ground cayenne and black peppers. I can now tolerate hot salsa, and some hot sauces, which can add a delicious kick to grilled veggies, black beans, or steamed spinach.
Spicy foods may help with weight loss
According to a 2011 study from Purdue University, heating things up may help rev your metabolism. Previous studies had linked consuming red pepper in high doses in tablet form with suppressing appetite and boosting calorie burn, but researchers wanted to see if normal amounts added to foods offered the same benefits. So they recruited 25 people; half of the participants reported liking spicy foods, while the other half did not.
The volunteers were then assigned to down either no hot pepper, their preferred amount, or a standard portion of cayenne, about half a teaspoon. In the end, both hot pepper groups burned more calories when they consumed spicy food, compared to the control. And bonus: those who had been infrequent spice eaters also reported feeling less hunger and fewer cravings for salty, fatty, and sweet foods.
Spicy foods may help clear out your sinuses
If you've ever had a runny nose after eating something spicy you've experienced this effect. The capsaicin in peppers is similar to a compound found in many decongestants, so the hotter the pepper the greater the impact.
If you're ever stuffed up, add a pinch of cayenne pepper to a cup of hot tea. Breathing it in and sipping it may help stimulate the mucus membranes that line your nasal passages to drain, so you can breathe easier.
It's interesting to note that hot peppers also protect nasal membranes in another way. They're a rich source of vitamin A, which helps to form strong mucous membranes, which serve as a barrier to prevent germs from getting into your body.
You can enjoy them in summer, too.
When you think of spicy food you may think of warm Indian dishes or chili, but in the heat of summer you're probably craving cold foods. That's okay, because spices work well in a variety of chilled dishes. Add a bit of minced fresh pepper or a pinch of dried ground hot pepper to gazpacho, guacamole, coleslaw, salsa, hummus, chilled bean dishes, kimchi, and cold protein salads (chicken, tuna, egg).
Consuming a little heat on a hot day may actually help you feel cooler by making you sweat a bit. If your sweat can evaporate (as long as it isn't too humid), you'll cool down.
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Spicy foods are good for your heart
Hot peppers have been shown to lower heart disease risk by decreasing levels of "bad" LDL cholesterol, increasing "good" HDL, and improving circulation. In fact, capsaicin is currently being studied for its ability to treat circulatory problems, hardening of the arteries, and irregular heart rhythm. Hot peppers also contain an impressively long list of antioxidants, including those known to help fend off aging, and fresh or dried hot peppers are a great way to flavor up meals without having to add salt or sugar.
Spicy foods may help stop ulcers
You've probably heard the old wives' tale that hot peppers burn a hole in your stomach or cause ulcers. The truth is hot peppers actually protect against ulcers. That's because bacteria called H. pylori cause most ulcers, and capsaicin from hot peppers may help to kill those bacteria. One Asian study found that people who ate mostly Chinese food, which contains less capsaicin, had three times the frequency of ulcers compared those who mostly ate much spicier Malay or Indian food.
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Cynthia Sass is a nutritionist and registered dietitian with master's degrees in both nutrition science and public health. Frequently seen on national TV, she's Health's contributing nutrition editor, and privately counsels clients in New York, Los Angeles, and long distance. Cynthia is currently the sports nutrition consultant to the New York Rangers NHL team and the New York Yankees MLB team, and is board certified as a specialist in sports dietetics. Cynthia is a three-time New York Times best-selling author, and her brand new book is Slim Down Now: Shed Pounds and Inches with Real Food, Real Fast. Connect with her on Facebook, Twitter and Pinterest.