There’s been a long-standing interest in the health benefits of peppers such as jalapeños and chillies. Besides the mystical capacity to “heal” any bland meal (personal opinion), a comparison of studies shows that eating chilli pepper produces an increase in background metabolism rate (thermogenesis) and fat burning (lipid oxidation) . Thermogenesis, which can also be induced by cold temperatures, can result in increased fat burning (lipid oxidation) within a specific type of fat cells (brown adipose tissue) . Combined with the effect on fat tissue and fat metabolism hormones, eating chillies has a multi-component effect on burning fat in the body .
These pepper properties can be attributed to their most potent-tasting chemical “capsaicin”, and both peppers and capsaicin are able to influence fat burning in a dose-dependent way . When capsaicin is encapsulated in a way that subjects don’t experience the peppery taste, fat burning is significantly lowered, indicating that tasting the pepper initiates at least part of the fat burning process . Interestingly, long-term chilli pepper eaters may have a smaller fat-burning response to continued chilli intake . However due to the high amounts of chilli pepper consumed in this study for long periods of time , maybe only people who already had a high tolerance signed up, which could have biased the results.
At the very least, some effects of eating chilli pepper are likely to be long-term, based on the demographics of chilli eaters .
Protection from Chronic Diseases and even Infections. A recent 4 year study monitoring spicy food consumption and cause of death across China in over 0.5 million people revealed that regularly eating pepper had effects beyond fat burning . Although monitoring the cause of death for 4 years may appear to be a morbid study, research like this can reveal a drug, lifestyle intervention or even food item so beneficial that they influence the risk of death. Compared to people eating chilli pepper (or other spicy food) less than once a week, eating spicy food on a more regular basis was statistically linked with lowered risk of death by respiratory diseases, diabetes and ischaemic heart disease, amongst other disease causes .
Interestingly, eating peppers on a regular basis (i.e. between 1 and 5 days out of the week) was often more protective than eating pepper every day of the week. Among the most impressive statistics, eating peppers 3–5 days per week lowered the risk of death from diabetes by 40–54% . Interestingly, there were some significant gender differences identified in this study as well; eating chilli peppers 3–5 days per week lowered women’s overall risk of death by up to 12% more than men. Women eating chilli peppers for 3 or more days per week also lowered their risk of cancer fatalities.
The implied protective properties of chilli pepper from this study do not prove that spicy food fanatics won’t catch diseases, it only proves their risk of death by each respective disease is lowered . However the apparent protection from the various diseases could have been lowered by not developing the disease in the first place, which was not monitored in the study. As with the science validating a plant-based diet, there is supporting experimental evidence that gives context to the health demographics of spicy food lovers by uncovering the possible healing mechanism.
The apparent protection from chronic diseases may be based on the antibacterial properties of peppers and its most pungent component, capsaicin.
Boosting Gut Microbe Health. Dietary capsaicin intake directly changes the blend of microbes in the gut  and heals “chronic low-grade inflammation” and obesity induced by a high-fat diet in mice  and people [2, 7]. A series of experiments showed that pepper and capsaicin protect against inflammation via the gut microbe profile . Using diet to lower inflammation is a potent pressure point in attacking many chronic diseases, and is the mechanism that makes a plant-based diet a diverse treatment . Specific antioxidant-rich foods like brazil nuts can be just as beneficial as pepper, with the ability to lower inflammation in dialysis patients  and the potential to improve gut health.
A small pilot study showed that although pepper is even beneficial to the gut microbe health of generally healthy people, those who benefit the most from pepper already have a relatively good selection of gut microbes . Stated another way, the healthier one’s gut microbe profile, the more chilli peppers may be able to mitigate inflammatory conditions and improve one’s health. There is also evidence that some of capsaicin’s antimicrobial activity is actually due to an increase of the body’s own primary defences .
It appears the best approach to optimal gut health may be to eat a plant-based diet that you regularly spice up with chilli pepper, at least on the weekends! This is especially the case for those who don’t usually consume chilli peppers on a regular basis:
“Preoccupation with food, and the desire to consume fatty, salty, and sweet foods were decreased more (or tended to be decreased more) in non-users than users after a 1 g red pepper test…” .
In other words, this small-scale study found that introducing pepper to people who don’t regularly eat it reduced their desire for foods that are often unhealthy. What other kind of vegetable helps you burn fat, improves your gut microbe profile, protects against fatalities from many chronic diseases and possibly decreases your desire for typically unhealthy food?
Disclaimer: If you have medical concerns, please consult your doctor before implementing the opinions in this article.
N. Baiden PhD.
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