Worth the Burn? Why Experts Say Hot Peppers Should Be a Diet Staple

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Hot peppers can add a healthy dose of zing to a variety of dishes.
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Hot peppers are staples in some of the world's favorite dishes, from chili to tacos. But after taking a bite — and subsequently feeling like your mouth is on fire — you might be left wondering if eating hot peppers is bad for you.

Well, don't let the burn fool you. While they aren't for everyone, experts say incorporating hot peppers into your diet is generally nothing short of a win.

Read more: Are Hot Peppers Good for You? Here are 5 Science-Backed Reasons to Embrace the Heat

Health Benefits of Hot Peppers

"Adding hot peppers to your daily meals is a small habit that can bring about many health benefits," says Amy Gorin, RDN, a registered dietitian and nutritionist in New York City.

"Hot peppers boast capsaicin and other bioactive components that can lead to so many powerful outcomes if eaten frequently. That includes potentially lowering your risk of obesity or becoming overweight, as well as possibly decreasing your risk of death from cancer, heart and respiratory disease due to their anti-inflammatory and other properties."

An August 2016 review published in the journal Nutrients found that the capsaicin in hot peppers can kill cancer cells from the prostate, pancreas, liver, stomach, lung and colon. In addition, a study involving roughly 16,000 adults, published in PLOS One in January 2017, found that people who regularly ate hot red chili peppers were 13 percent less likely to have died in about a 19-year span than were those who didn't eat such peppers.

An August 2015 study published in BMJ and a December 2019 study in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology had similar outcomes, finding that those who ate hot peppers regularly had a 14 percent and 23 percent decreased risk of death, respectively, compared with those who didn't eat peppers.

Downside of Eating Hot Peppers

As you're probably aware, reaping these benefits may come with the cost of making you feel uncomfortable at the dinner table. "When you eat hot peppers, the capsaicin binds with cells on the tongue," Gorin says. "These cells send a signal to your brain that you just ate spicy food." And, according to Darlene Regueiro, RDN, a registered dietitian and nutritionist in New York City, your sinuses will probably also open up, so cue the runny nose.

Usually, that's the extent of the downside to hot peppers, unless you overdo it. If you eat a lot of really spicy peppers, there can be negative side effects. "You might experience dizziness, or in extreme cases, may feel nauseous," says Gorin.

Still, "hot peppers boast capsaicin and other bioactive components that can have so many health benefits if eaten frequently," she says. "That includes potentially lowering your risk of obesity or becoming overweight, as well as possibly decreasing your risk of death from cancer, heart and respiratory disease due to their anti-inflammatory and other properties."

When to Avoid Hot Peppers

The only people who should avoid hot peppers are those with certain health issues, Gorin says, citing irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), Crohn's disease and ulcerative colitis. If you have one of those conditions, you may experience increased symptoms when eating spicy foods, she says, so it would be better to minimize consumption or avoid them altogether.

It also depends on which kinds of peppers you choose. In terms of hot peppers, jalapeños are the mildest option, followed by cayenne peppers, habanero peppers and crazy-hot ghost peppers.

Regueiro says it's all about moderation. "If you're consuming hot peppers, it should be because you enjoy the kick it gives your food and not solely for the health benefits," she notes. And if it's almost too hot to handle? Pair your hot peppers with dishes that help offset the burn.

Read more: The Health Benefits of Hot Sauce

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