Eating spicy foods can cause pain and discomfort similar to some signs associated with heart attack — a flushed face, chest pain, nausea and sweating. Because of these types of reactions, some people assume that spicy foods are bad for heart health. Is this fact or just a myth?
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The Truth About Spicy Food and Heart Disease
While it's true that certain dietary choices — such as drinking alcohol and consuming foods high in saturated fats, trans fats, sodium and added sugars — are related to an increased risk for heart disease, it's a myth that spicy food and heart disease are related, says Jeffrey H. Johnson, MD, a cardiologist at the University of Tennessee Medical Center in Knoxville.
The good news for spicy food lovers is that these tasty treats don't present a direct risk to heart health before or after a heart attack, he says. In fact, spicy food just might be good for you.
Read more: The 14 Best Foods for Your Heart
Bring on the Heat
Over the past four decades, the amount of published research focused on the role diet and nutrition play in health and overall quality of life has increased more than 700 percent, according to a January 2017 study in the journal PLoS One. The abundance of diet-related research is not surprising. "Diet is related to the prevention of or the increased risk of heart disease," notes Dr. Johnson, "mainly in the areas of calorie excess and obesity, high-fat diets and dietary intake that increases inflammation in the body."
What does the research say about heart health and spicy foods? It turns out that not only is eating spicy food not bad for your heart, but it's actually beneficial for cardiovascular health if you eat spicy foods that contain capsaicin, the naturally-occurring chemical responsible for giving foods like chili peppers their heat.
The Journal of Nutrition and Metabolism published a review article in December 2015 in which a variety of benefits of consuming capsaicin were highlighted. These include lowering blood pressure, reducing cholesterol and reducing blood glucose — all variables that, when managed well, reduce the risk for heart disease. More research is needed to determine the exact mechanism by which spicy foods have such beneficial impacts, but you can still chow down on them.
Read more: Are Hot Peppers Good for You?
An October 2017 study published in Hypertension looked at one possible explanation for the blood-pressure lowering effects of spicy food by comparing people who regularly consume spicy foods and have lower blood pressure to people who don't eat spicy foods. The report found that the spicy food lovers appear to consume less salt and have lower blood pressure as a result.
The researchers say it's possible that eating spicy foods makes people more sensitive to the flavor of salt, so they simply need less. More research is needed to confirm this theory, but regardless of the exact cause and effect, it's another win for spicy food lovers since lowering high blood pressure is one way to reduce the risk for heart attack.
A review published in Bioscience Report in June 2017 examined the impact of spicy foods on obesity, another risk factor for heart attack. The review references a double-blind study in which individuals who had overweight or obesity who were given 6 milligrams of capsinoid (a chemical cousin of capsaicin) every day for 12 weeks had measurable loss of abdominal fat as well as weight compared with individuals who were given a placebo.
Heart-Healthy Spicy Recipes
The American Heart Association (AHA) offers a plethora of "Heart-Check Certified Recipes" on its website, including many spicy-hot options. To be Heart-Check Certified, a recipe must meet set nutritional requirements, including a nutritional analysis that reviews calorie count and levels of sodium, saturated fat, trans fat, added sugars and omega-3 fatty acids, AHA explains.
Or try one of these zesty, heart-healthy LIVESTRONG.com recipes if you want to kick things up a notch:
- Breakfast: The Buenos Dias Toast With Refried Beans and Hardboiled Eggs
- Lunch: Spicy Bean Chili
- Snack: Spicy Gingered Carrot Fries
- Dinner: Spicy Shrimp Fajitas
- PloS One: “The Association of Hot Red Chili Pepper Consumption and Mortality: A Large Population-Based Cohort Study”
- Bioscience Reports: “Dietary Capsaicin and Its Anti-obesity Potency: From Mechanism to Clinical Implications”
- Hypertension: “Enjoyment of Spicy Flavor Enhances Central Salty-Taste Perception and Reduces Salt Intake and Blood Pressure”
- Journal of Nutrition and Metabolism. “Capsaicinoids Modulating Cardiometabolic Syndrome Risk Factors: Current Perspectives.”
- American Heart Association: “Recipes.”
- AHA: "Heart-Check Recipe Certification Program Nutrition Requirements"