Spicy foods have been around for centuries. For ancient peoples, the benefits of spicy food went beyond flavor to include food preservation. Today, people eat spices for longevity, metabolism, and many other health benefits.
Keep reading to learn more about the health benefits of spicy foods, including how eating spicy foods may actually add years to your life.
What’s Considered Spicy Food?
While there isn’t a general consensus on an exact definition for spicy foods, most sources describe spicy foods as sharp, strongly flavored, pungent, and aromatic. Spicy foods are most often spotted because they are “hot” and create a desirable burning sensation. For example, many peppers and chili peppers are used in spicy ingredients.
Sometimes, the term spicy food is just used to mean food that includes plenty of spices! This is common for foods outside the Western world, such as Indian, Mexican, or Thai food.
You may already be cooking with some seasonings considered spicy, such as black pepper which adds a subtle spice. Other spicy foods, like jalapeños, are hard to ignore.
Many herbs and spices can fit into the spicy food category, including:
- Chili powder
- Red chili flakes
- Whole grain mustard or mustard powder
6 Benefits of Spicy Food
Curious if spice level correlates with health benefits? The following reasons may help motivate you to introduce more spicy foods into your diet.
Excites Your Taste Buds
Spices and spicy ingredients are key to creating the flavors of certain dishes. They can be a surprising addition that elevates flavor beyond the norm. Fun combinations, such as sweet and spicy, can be made by combining spicy foods with other items.
For example, in Sri Lanka (where spices play a major role in cuisine), a spicy non-dairy coconut milk ice cream has been created. Like other ice creams in the area, this dish provides desired flavors, aromas, and textures while also serving as a suitable alternative for those avoiding dairy.
May Reduce Your Risk of Chronic Conditions
Research continues to link spicy food consumption with reducing the risk of chronic conditions. For example, a recent study on adults aged 30-79 years found that eating spicy foods was associated with a lower risk of developing certain cancers.
Eating patterns like the DASH diet have long been linked with lowering the risk of heart disease and heart-related complications. However, it turns out that consuming spicy foods may also decrease the risk of developing a stroke, cardiovascular disease, or similar conditions. As part of a healthy dietary pattern, spicy foods may have a protective effect on heart health.
May Boost Your Brain Health
Thanks to the active compound capsaicin, which is present in many spicy foods and chili peppers, spicy foods may be good for mental health. Although more research is needed for an aging population, a recent study on adolescents suggests that eating spicy food more frequently may reduce symptoms of anxiety or depression.
Trying spicy foods also exercises unique areas of the brain. In particular, research has shown that spicy foods can engage the sensation-seeking and reward centers of the brain. In other words, eating spicy foods more frequently may help you flex your mental muscles.
May Benefit Your Metabolism
Spices and spicy food may be able to help mediate your metabolism, which is linked to goals like balancing blood sugar levels and weight loss. The following spices, in particular, are thought to have prebiotic potential and may positively impact “good” bacteria in your gut:
- Black Pepper
These herbs and spices can also add the flair or flavor of spiciness that you’re looking for. In other words, they’re adding flavor but also may be improving your metabolism during the digestive process as they promote a balance of good bacteria in your gut.
Don’t forget that fermented foods like kimchi containing probiotics, or “good” bacteria, can also be flavored using spicy ingredients like chili paste. Plus, they add unexpected flavors and textures to the diet.
May Decrease Cellular Stress
Stress isn’t just what is happening around you, but also what is happening inside you. Injury, illness, and inflammation put your body’s cells under much stress to keep you functioning normally.
Luckily, there’s a nutritional antidote to the effects of cellular stress called antioxidants. These compounds help to remove free radicals, which are molecules that can cause stress inside the body.
Many of the herbs and spices used in spicy foods contain vitamins and minerals that act as antioxidants. One such spice that is thought to have anti-inflammatory properties due to its natural antioxidants is pepper, which can easily be used to flavor foods.
Could Be Anti-Aging
Although more studies on humans are needed, compounds like capsaicin and antioxidants (which are found in many spicy ingredients) are linked to longevity. One reason for this is that the same receptors in the body that works with capsaicin are also thought to regulate longevity and metabolism.
While you wait for science to catch up, you can look to ancient wisdom regarding spices. Historically, herbs and spices have been utilized for culinary and medicinal purposes.
Since “blue zones,” or areas where people live the longest, consume plenty of herbs and spices, it stands to reason that those who eat spicy foods may outlive those who don’t.
How to Use Spices for Longevity
A neat aspect of aging is that your sense of smell and taste can change! You may find that you can better tolerate spicy or “hot” foods as you age. Spices can make food more interesting, appealing, and colorful.
One classic way to add some spice to your meal is by showering it with hot sauce. From your morning eggs to your lunchtime burrito to your evening meal, there are many ways to incorporate hot sauce into your favorite dishes.
Remember, spice doesn’t have to taste “spicy” to have health benefits. A pinch of pepper on your meal can add that strong sense of flavor you’ve been searching for.
Some dishes, especially those from Eastern cuisine, naturally contain plenty of tasty spices. For example, curry is named after the spicy seasoning that gives it flavor (curry powder). Meals, like stir-fries, also easily incorporate spicier herbs and seasonings such as ginger.
Remember that your health provider may recommend staying away from spicy foods for a while. For example, during menopause, women going through hot flashes are often warned to avoid extremely spicy foods (which can trigger symptoms).
The Last Word on Spices for Longevity
Turns out spicy foods aren’t just good for flavor. They also act as nutritional powerhouses, containing compounds like capsaicin and antioxidants that may be the secret to a healthier, longer life. From the hottest sauce to the subtlest sprinkle of pepper, there’s room in everyone’s diet for a little bit of spice.
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