Spicy foods: a recipe for longer life?

According to recent research, eating spicy foods might do more than give your taste buds a zing. It could help you live a longer, healthier life.

Is variety truly the spice of life, or is spice a key to long life? According to recent research, eating spicy foods might do more than give your taste buds a zing. It could help you live a longer, healthier life.

Researchers analyzed data from questionnaires completed by more than a half-million adults in China. They found that people whose daily diets featured spicy foods had a lower risk of death from cancer, heart disease, lung disease and diabetes.

The study, published this August in the peer-reviewed medical journal BMJ, reveals that consuming spicy foods daily lowered the participants’ risk of early death by 14 percent. Consuming spicy foods just once or twice a week showed a 10 percent improvement in life expectancy.

“Many foods known to pack some heat can also pack a nutritional punch,” said Anita McLaughlin, clinical nutritionist, Norton Cancer Institute Resource Center. “Peppers are naturally high in vitamins, minerals and antioxidants and some evidence suggests that eating spicy foods can help you eat less and lose weight, or improve health in other ways.”

The research is preliminary but there is much interest in capsaicin, the substance that gives peppers their heat. The quest is on to determine capsaicin’s potential for boosting metabolism, relieving pain and reducing inflammation.

McLaughlin adds that she often advises people to “eat their colors” — including lots of colorful fruits and vegetables in their diets. The same recommendation applies to herbs and spices, which are rich in antioxidants and offer an alternative to less beneficial ingredients such as salt, sugar and fat, which are too often consumed in excess.

A quick search of the National Institutes of Health’s website (nhi.gov) reveals dozens of articles about capsaicin. Searching “inflammation” produces pages of information about inflammation’s role in everything from Alzheimer’s disease to zinc deficiency among the elderly.

“Substantial evidence links chronic, persistent inflammation to a host of serious health problems, including some cancers,” said Patrick Williams, M.D., medical director, Norton Cancer Institute. “Generally speaking, the more we can do to understand how inflammation works and reduce or eliminate its harmful effects, the better.”

So, should people eat spicy food to protect and promote their health? It is too early to say, but the debate is definitely heating up.

The authors of the BMJ article caution against drawing conclusions from their observations. They point out that further studies are needed to demonstrate whether their findings can help explain capsaicin’s effects and benefits.

“In cancer research, it’s not at all uncommon to see interesting results from initial early studies lead to more work that helps change and improve our diagnostic and treatment approaches and options,” Dr. Williams said. “Historically, many medical advances have come from this kind of incremental building of knowledge.”

In the meantime, it can’t hurt to add some spice (and a punch of flavor!) to your meals. Actually, my grown son might tell you otherwise. He once had to go to the emergency department after accidentally rubbing habanero juice in his eyes while trying to best his buddies in a “hottest chili” contest. So, when it comes to consuming hot spicy foods, remember: Eat responsibly.


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