Health Benefits of Spicy Foods


Sprinkling ground red chili pepper paprika over sliced vegetables,

Sprinkling ground red chili pepper paprika over sliced vegetables,

microgen / Getty Images

When it comes to spicy foods, people generally fall into two categories—those who love them and those who avoid them at all costs.

If you’re a lover of all things spicy, you’ll be glad to know that spices such as peppers and chilies offer more than just flavor. Compounds in spicy foods may help reduce blood pressure, support weight management, and boost longevity. However, spicy foods aren’t for everyone, especially if you have digestive issues.

Here's a look at the potential health benefits and risks of eating spicy foods.

What Makes Foods Spicy?

Spicy foods and peppers contain chemical compounds called capsaicinoids that give them their heat. Capsaicinoids are most concentrated in the white lining of a pepper.

When you bite into a pepper, capsaicin—the most common capsaicinoid in hot peppers—attaches to heat-sensing receptors in the mouth, causing a burning sensation.

May Support Heart Health

Heart disease is the leading cause of death in the United States and around the world.

There is some evidence that spicy foods may reduce blood pressure and cholesterol, two key risk factors for heart disease.

For example, a 2022 review of studies found that spicy foods and peppers may help improve blood pressure and decrease the risk of death from heart disease or stroke.

In addition, a 2017 observational study found that spicy foods may significantly decrease daily salt intake, individual salt preference, and blood pressure by modifying how the brain perceives salty tastes.

Another 2017 observational study linked spicy foods to decreased low-density lipoprotein (LDL), or “bad” cholesterol, levels. Additionally, the study found that people who ate spicy foods more than five times per week had significantly higher high-density lipoprotein (HDL), or “good” cholesterol levels, than those who did not.

However, the same study showed that triglyceride levels increased with the frequency of spicy food intake. High triglycerides can increase the risk of heart disease and stroke.

Furthermore, a 2023 review of observational studies found that while higher intakes of spicy foods may help lower blood pressure, it may also negatively impact cholesterol levels.

Note that most studies to date examining the effects of spicy food on heart health are observational, meaning they can only find associations. Further high-quality human studies are needed to establish a clear relationship.

May Improve Gut Health

The gut microbiome plays a vital role in our health and well-being. An imbalance of bacteria in the gut has been associated with gastrointestinal (GI) and metabolic disorders like irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) and diabetes.

While spicy foods may cause digestive discomfort in some people, they may actually benefit gut health when consumed in moderation.

Research suggests that capsaicin may improve gut health by increasing the amount of good bacteria in the gut while decreasing the abundance of disease-causing bacteria.

Low doses of capsaicin may also help remove excess acid from the stomach, promoting the healing of stomach ulcers.

However, further studies are needed to establish a clear relationship between capsaicin and gut health.

Steps You Can Take For Improved Gut Health

May Aid in Weight Loss

In one 2021 observational study, 63% of participants reported experiencing greater meal satisfaction after eating a meal with capsaicin spices. The study also found that people who rarely consumed spicy foods were more likely to be classified as "non-lean."

Several human studies suggest that spicy food consumption may support weight management by increasing energy expenditure and fat burn, suppressing appetite, and improving gut microbiome composition.

Of note, many of these studies were short-term, had relatively small sample sizes, and used supplemental capsaicinoids rather than natural food sources.

Additionally, some studies have shown neutral or even adverse effects on weight loss.

One 2022 review noted that while spicy foods containing capsaicin may decrease appetite, it does not protect against obesity in the long run.

Another 2023 review of observational studies found that people who consumed higher amounts of spicy foods were more likely to have overweight or obesity.

Researchers believe this may be due to spicy foods increasing cravings for sweets and carbohydrate-rich foods to relieve the burning sensation. Spicy foods are also more likely to be meat and less likely to be vegetables, which may also contribute to weight gain.

May Improve Longevity

Perhaps the most promising benefit of spicy foods is their potential to increase longevity. This may be due to the antioxidant and anti-inflammatory effects of capsaicin.

One 2021 review looked at four observational studies with a total of 564,748 adult participants to examine the association between consumption of spicy food (chili pepper, chili sauce, or chili oil) and mortality (death).

Researchers found that, compared to those who did not regularly consume spicy foods, regular consumers had a 12% decreased risk of all-cause mortality.

Furthermore, another 2015 review linked spicy food consumption with lower mortality risk from specific causes such as cancer, ischemic heart diseases, and respiratory diseases.

Nutritional Facts of Spicy Foods

The nutrition profile of spicy foods can vary depending on their ingredients and preparation methods.

However, the spice in many foods often comes from capsaicin, a compound found in chili peppers.

One raw chili pepper has the following nutrition profile:

  • Calories: 18
  • Fat: 0.2 grams (g)
  • Sodium: 4 milligrams (mg)
  • Carbohydrates: 4 g
  • Fiber: 0.7 g
  • Protein: 0.8 g
  • Vitamin C: 72% of the Daily Value (DV)

Vitamin C is important for a healthy immune system, iron absorption from plant sources, and collagen production.

Chili peppers are also relatively high in beta-carotene, a type of antioxidant that can be converted to vitamin A in the body.

Risks of Spicy Foods

Spicy foods are generally considered safe when consumed in moderation. However, large amounts of capsaicin may cause uncomfortable GI symptoms, including:

  • Heartburn
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Diarrhea
  • Stomach pain

These symptoms may be more severe in people with IBS who are not used to eating spicy foods regularly.

Although rare, studies have linked the intake of chili peppers and spicy foods to leg cramps, skin rashes, and hives.

Furthermore, some observational studies suggest that higher intakes of spicy foods may increase the risk of cancer, especially of the stomach, gallbladder, and esophagus. However, other studies have shown that the frequent consumption of spicy foods may actually protect against GI cancers, particularly esophageal cancer.

Further research is needed to establish a clear connection between spicy food intake and cancer.

Tips for Consuming Spicy Foods

Even though spicy foods may offer several promising health benefits, it's important to consume them as part of a balanced diet and in a healthy way.

For example, adding peppers to an omelet or stir fry can give it a nutrient boost and increase its flavor. However, deep-fried hot wings or fried jalapenos are unlikely to offer significant health benefits and should be consumed in moderation.

Additionally, many hot sauce varieties are high in additives like sodium, a nutrient you may need to limit if you have high blood pressure.

How to Increase Your Spice Tolerance

If you're not used to eating a lot of spicy foods and want to improve your tolerance, consider the following tips:

  • Start slow: Start by adding a pinch of red pepper flakes to your favorite meals to see how your body tolerates it.
  • Gradually increase the intensity: Start with milder peppers like Anaheim or poblano with less capsaicin. When you feel like your taste buds have gotten used to your current spice level, gradually incorporate hotter spices or peppers.
  • Eat spicy foods more often: The more you eat spicy foods, the more your tongue will get used to the sensation.
  • Keep a cooling beverage on hand: Studies suggest milk is the best choice to reduce the oral burn from capsaicin. This is believed to be due to its protein and fat content. If you're not a fan of milk, newer studies indicate that sweetened fruit punch like Kool-Aid can significantly reduce burn due to its sucrose content.

A Quick Review

Spicy foods that contain capsaicin may help improve blood pressure, satiety, gut health, and longevity. However, research is conflicting, and most existing evidence is limited to observational and animal studies.

High intakes of spicy foods may cause uncomfortable GI symptoms like nausea, stomach pain, and diarrhea. These symptoms are more likely to occur in people with digestive issues.

If you want to increase your intake of spicy foods, it is important to do so gradually to minimize potential side effects.