Hot peppers not only add delicious heat to your favorite dishes, they can also provide an array of health benefits. Hot peppers contain a component called capsaicin, which has been shown to kill off cancer cells, illicit anti-inflammatory effects, slash your risk for cardiovascular disease and help relieve pain.
Capsaicin is the portion of the pepper responsible for its burning effect. It doesn't have any flavor or odor, but it does pack a punch of heat. The hottest parts of the pepper, the portions that contain the most capsaicin, are its seeds and ribs, but there is some capsaicin throughout the flesh of the pepper as well. The hotter the pepper, the more capsaicin it contains.
Many Hispanic dishes include hot peppers, which could be poblano, jalapeño, chile, cayenne, serrano or habanero peppers. These fiery vegetables provide unique flavor for very few calories, and they are good for you too.
Some early research suggests that sprinkling dried cayenne pepper on your food may cause a slight increase in calories burned after your meal. Researchers believe this is due to capsaicin's ability to generate heat when consumed. The scientists behind this study, conducted at UCLA's Center for Human Nutrition, said the increased calorie burn observed in their study was equivalent to about 100 extra calories burned per day for a woman weighing 110 pounds, 200 extra calories burned per day for a man weighing 200 pounds. However, further research is needed in this area.
When applied topically, creams containing capsaicin have been shown to temporarily reduce the pain brought on by chronic conditions such as fibromyalgia, backaches and arthritis. New research also shows promising results of topical creams containing capsaicin in treating nerve pain associated with diabetic neuropathy or neuralgia. Other studies have revealed that topical capsaicin-containing creams may help those suffering from psoriasis because it may decrease the itching caused by this disease.
A great thing about adding hot peppers to your diet is that there aren't any negative side effects from consuming them, other than some possible short-term mouth burning you could experience if you go overboard. There's a common misconception that spicy foods can cause stomach ulcers, but this is not true. They could increase some pain associated with an already-existing ulcer, but they don't cause ulcers if you don't already have one.
Ways to incorporate these spicy little suckers into an already healthy diet include:
- Add some chopped spicy peppers to your morning eggs.
- Toss some sautéed peppers into your pasta sauce.
- Layer some sliced peppers into your sandwiches or wraps to give them an extra kick of flavor.
The Bottom Line
While hot peppers can cause a small spike in your metabolism and may help you consume less because you wind up taking in more fluids to cool off, it's no "easy fix" for an otherwise unhealthy diet. Try to stick to an overall healthy eating plan that focuses on variety, moderation, portion control and nutrient-dense foods.
Kari Hartel, RD, LD is a Registered Dietitian and freelance writer based out of St. Louis, MO. Kari is passionate about nutrition education and the prevention of chronic disease through a healthy diet and active lifestyle. Kari holds a Bachelor of Science in Dietetics from Southeast Missouri State University and is committed to helping people lead healthy lives. She completed a yearlong dietetic internship at OSF St. Francis Medical Center in Peoria, IL, where she worked with a multitude of clients and patients with complicated diagnoses. She planned, marketed, and implemented nutrition education programs and cooking demonstrations for the general public as well as for special populations, including patients with cancer, heart disease, diabetes, Alzheimer's disease, obesity, and school-aged children. Contact Kari at KariHartelRD@gmail.com.