What Starts in the Body When You Eat Spicy Food

Eating spicy food may well have other consequences for the body. While some people enjoy an extra dash of chili, others can’t eat anything but bland foods.

No matter what type of person you are, the science of spicy food is fascinating. First, what makes food taste spicy? It may seem like a silly question, but not all of us are spice connoisseurs. The answer is capsaicin, a chemical compound found in spicy foods like cayenne pepper that is responsible for the burning sensation we feel when we eat it.

While you may not like the heat given off by capsaicin, this compound boasts health benefits. For example, capsaicin can serve as an analgesic or pain reliever, according to the National Library of Medicine.

As a topical medicine, capsaicin is specifically used to relieve nerve pain. According to the University of Michigan, joint problems such as rheumatoid arthritis and skin conditions such as psoriasis can also be treated with ointments or gels containing capsaicin.

Eating spicy foods may well have other effects on the body. Here are some of them.

Effects of spicy food on the body

You may get heartburn

“Certain medical conditions can be exacerbated by eating spicy foods,” says Mary Maton, RD, a dietitian in private practice at Culina Health.

“Take gastroesophageal reflux disease, or GERD, for example. The condition is characterized by the backflow of stomach acid into the esophagus, which can cause a burning sensation in the upper gastrointestinal tract and chest.

“Although spicy foods are not considered to be the main cause of GERD, they can certainly aggravate it,” says Matone. “Although the mechanism of action is unknown, spicy foods can irritate the already affected esophagus, causing heartburn and discomfort.”

Moreover, capsaicin can slow the rate at which food passes through the stomach, increasing the risk of reflux, according to a study published in July 2017 in the Journal of Neurogastroenterology and Motility.

Also of interest: according to the University of Chicago Medical School, it is a common misconception that spicy foods can increase the risk of stomach ulcers.

“In fact, pepper can reduce the production of gastric juice,” says Matone. “As a result, spicy foods, especially those containing peppers, can actually help relieve symptoms in people with peptic ulcers.”

You can lose weight (maybe)

There are several theories about how spicy foods can contribute to weight loss. Research suggests that spicy ingredients may increase calorie and fat burning or reduce appetite, according to a review published in October 2021 in the journal Appetite.

In the various trials included in the review, people received capsaicinoids either as supplements or as whole foods. Although some studies reported modest (about 10%) increases in energy burning, overall, the results were not long-term.

“While the evidence suggests that pepper consumption may increase energy expenditure and promote weight loss, it should be noted that this increase is minimal and unlikely to result in significant weight loss without other interventions,” says Matoni. “Observed weight changes may also depend on a person’s initial weight and body fat percentage.”

Bottom line: don’t expect jalapenos to be a panacea for weight loss. Instead, a healthy approach to sustainable weight loss should consist of a well-balanced diet and regular exercise for long-term health benefits.

For colds

A runny nose is not uncommon as soon as you start eating spicy food. Capsaicin is known to thin mucus, according to the University of Michigan Health System.

Although the reaction can be irritating, there may be some benefits, including improved air circulation and improved drainage from the sinuses.

You could live longer

According to a review published in The British Medical Journal in August 2015, people who ate spicy food almost every day were 14 percent more likely to live longer than people who ate the food less than once a week.

Although the study was observational (and therefore cannot prove cause and effect), it is possible that capsaicin’s anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties contributed to these potential longevity benefits, according to Harvard University T.H. Chan School of Public Health.

Your lipid panel may improve (but there’s a trick)

Spicy foods can be good for your heart: Chinese adults who ate spicy foods more often and in large quantities had lower LDL cholesterol levels and LDL to HDL ratios compared to adults who ate less or no spicy foods, according to a study published in July 2017 in the British Journal of Nutrition.

This is encouraging, as lower LDL cholesterol levels are associated with a lower risk of heart disease. But the study reported another interesting finding: eating spicier foods was also associated with higher blood triglyceride levels, which is a risk factor for heart disease.

The researchers believe that the higher triglycerides may be due to the fact that spicy ingredients are often used to add flavor to simple starches such as rice, which is a staple of the Chinese diet. But excess carbohydrates in the body are converted into fat and can therefore contribute to higher trig levels. In other words, eating spicier foods could also mean eating more refined carbohydrates, which could potentially mean more blood fat.

Conclusion: spicy foods can improve lipid levels, but it’s how we eat them that matters. Focus on adding chili flakes or hot sauces to nutrient-rich foods like vegetables and fish instead of refined carbohydrates.

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Written by Emma Miller

I am a registered dietitian nutritionist and own a private nutrition practice, where I provide one-on-one nutritional counseling to patients. I specialize in chronic disease prevention/ management, vegan/ vegetarian nutrition, pre-natal/ postpartum nutrition, wellness coaching, medical nutrition therapy, and weight management.

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