Spicy Foods Offer Much More Than Heat

spices benefits

Story at-a-glance -

  • Spices used for weight loss or weight maintenance have additional health benefits, such as anti-inflammatory properties and a pleasing flavor profile that may help limit overall calorie intake
  • Capsaicin and curcumin are examples of compounds found in spices that can help drive weight loss, as well as many other health benefits

By Dr. Mercola

Spices are a wonderful addition to foods and beverages because they can add just the right flair. Nutmeg, for instance, lends quiet warmth and complexity, in desserts like apple crisp and in vegetables like spinach, as in the savory Indian dish, saag paneer. And paprika lends mild sweetness to meat dishes and goulash.

But flavor is just one trait that makes spices such an integral part of cooking and eating. They can also be incredibly good for your health and help you reach your weight goals. One of the great things about adding spices of any kind to your meals is that the flavor can help you feel more satisfied, so you don't feel so deprived when you eat foods with fewer calories, says Jaclyn London, senior clinical dietician at Mount Sinai Hospital.1

London adds that in regard to spices, "The key is that all the ones we talk about for weight loss or maintenance have anti-inflammatory properties and a flavor profile that may help limit overall calorie intake." With that, here are several examples of spices to try in your quest to lose weight.

Warming Spices to Narrow Your Waistline

Cinnamon

While cinnamon is delicious and warming, it also kicks in your metabolism. Studies also show it helps reduce blood glucose levels and improve insulin resistance for people with type 2 diabetes. In fact, in one study published in Diabetes Care concluded that it:

"Reduced serum glucose [and] triglyceride … levels in people with type 2 diabetes. Because [it] would not contribute to caloric intake, [people with] type 2 diabetes or elevated glucose [or] triglyceride … levels may benefit from the regular inclusion of cinnamon in their daily diet."2

Nutritionist and author Marilyn Glenville, Ph.D., the former president of the Food and Health Forum at the UK Royal Society of Medicine, warns that people with bleeding disorders or anyone taking blood thinners such as warfarin or heparin should avoid cinnamon, as it contains the blood-thinning compound coumarin.3

Ginger

There's a popular legend that Confucius ate ginger at every meal. One reason why may be explained in a study reported by the European Journal of Gastroenterology and Hematology, which explored the effects of ginger on "gastric motility," aka how quickly food moved through the colon instead of sticking around and causing problems.4

The study involved 11 patients, some of whom were given placebos, and concluded with the statement that ginger encouraged more antral contractions in comparison between the two, which conceivably promoted more rapid gastric emptying.5 It also boosts insulin sensitivity, which London explains is due to ginger's anti-inflammatory properties, reducing fatty acids and promoting weight stability.

Cardamom

Referred to as the "queen of spices" in India and Nepal, cardamom is one of the most expensive spices but still a very popular ingredient in tea and coffee. It's related to cinnamon and is shown in studies to help lower blood glucose levels and regulate your insulin, as well as optimize your cholesterol levels.6

Studies say this little-known spice, a thermogenic herb, has dozens of other valuable health benefits and uses, besides being antimicrobial and anti-inflammatory, which can sooth your gastrointestinal system and enhance your metabolic function.7

Cardamom is regarded as a diuretic in Ayurvedic tradition. One study also compared it favorably with8 commercial products designed to relieve weight retention, colic, diarrhea and constipation.9 It's also been noted for balancing gut flora to optimize digestion.10

Spicy Foods Offer Much More Than Heat

Chili powder

You've heard the term "active ingredient." Well, the active ingredient in chili powder is capsaicin. London calls chili powder a "triple threat" because as it boosts your energy, it can help you eat slower.

Additionally, a sprinkle of chili powder on your food may inspire you to eat more healthy plant-based offerings rather than an extra helping of bread or rice. All three advantages relate to eating less, which may be what you're hoping for. Capsaicin also stimulates brown fat, a type of fat that generates heat by helping you burn calories, which is why it's being explored as a tool for weight loss, healthy metabolism and more.11

Black pepper

Recent animal studies note that piperine's ability to inhibit new fat cells from forming, known as adipogenesis, helps reduce waist size and body fat and optimizes cholesterol levels.12 With similar effects to capsaicin, Europeans have used black pepper for thousands of years in traditional medicine to treat inflammation and digestive problems. Its effectiveness is due in part to a compound known as piperine. Daily Mail notes:

"Piperine has similar effects to capsaicin in chilies and is what gives black pepper its heat. It's the heat which helps prevent the formation of new fat cells, especially if you decide to indulge in a mouth-searing meal featuring pepper and chili."13

Cumin

Known for jazzing up Southwestern fare, cumin is also capable of suppressing your appetite and keeping fat cells from showing up again after weight loss.

Ginseng

Ginseng, particularly the Siberian variety, is known for speeding up your metabolism and giving you a "second wind" of energy, which may be why tea with ginseng has been a "thing" all over Asia and Europe for centuries. Siberian ginseng is known as an adaptogen, which Daily Mail describes as something that "works according to what your body needs." Glenville says it provides energy when required, and helps combat stress and fatigue when you are under pressure.14

Cayenne pepper

Cayenne pepper is noted for a phenomenon known as thermogenesis, which consumes oxygen in your body and can result in weight loss. It contains capsaicin, which gives it its heat, but also promotes fat oxidation15 and increases fat burning by as much as 16 percent.

Capsaicin has been shown to have potential for promoting metabolic and vascular health. Further, the same study shows it has "favorable effects" on atherosclerosis, hypertension, diabetes, obesity, non-alcoholic fatty liver, cardiac hypertrophy and stroke risk.16 But while spice is good, Eat This observes there's such a thing as too much: 

"Too much spicy food can send you to Toilet Town, but a little hit of capsaicin, the compound that gives chili pepper its powerful kick, has proven to reduce belly fat, suppress appetite and boost thermogenesis."17

Spices Further Your Weight Loss Goals in Surprising Ways

Garlic powder

Practically speaking, one reason garlic powder can help you lose weight is because its strong flavor may make you take smaller bites and also eat slower, which may prevent you from eating too much. Studies also indicate that when you eat garlic, your body temperature can increase, a sure sign of a revved up metabolism. Spry Living says:

"Garlic is thermogenic. It makes your body generate heat, which burns calories [and] revs up an enzyme called AMP-activated protein kinase that regulates metabolism. This enzyme targets many areas of the body, including muscles and a form of fat called brown fat, which produces heat and burns off calories."18

Turmeric

Practically a prerequisite for any kind of Indian curry, turmeric is a huge star in the constellation of beneficial spices. London notes that when it comes to weight loss, turmeric can differentiate fat cells by halting their formation and ability to reduce in size.19 Detailing why this is important, Glenville notes:

"Its active ingredient is curcumin and although the research has not shown that curcumin can actually help with weight loss, it is thought to stop the regrowth of fat after someone has lost weight. This could be helpful as many people end up putting back the weight they have lost after a diet."20

Turmeric also helps reduce inflammation, which can be a significant contributor to obesity and the inability to lose weight. One study notes:

"Curcumin is the active ingredient in turmeric. Evidence suggests curcumin may regulate lipid metabolism, which plays a central role in the development of obesity and its complications. The present review addresses the evidence and mechanisms by which curcumin may play a role in downregulating obesity and reducing the impact of associated problems."21

Mustard seed

It's probably no surprise that the compound in mustard seed that's responsible for burning fat and enhancing your metabolism is, once again, capsaicin. Glenville explains:

"Mustard is part of the cruciferous family of vegetables which are thought to have many health benefits. Other cruciferous vegetables include cabbage, cauliflower, broccoli and Brussels sprouts. If you are buying ready-made mustard make sure that it does not contain sugar as this is going to be counter-productive for your weight."22

Another study at Oxford Polytechnic University in England found that 1 teaspoon of mustard seed can elevate your metabolism by 25 percent, a benefit that persists for several hours after consumption. This may be due to the phytochemical allyl isothiocyanates, which also deliver the flavor.23 Be careful, though: when mustard is neon yellow or loaded with sugar, health benefits go out the window.

How Diet 'Tricks' Can Masquerade as Lasting Weight Loss

Nutritionist Monica Reinagel explored a new diet designed to help people lose weight by "flushing impurities from your body and super-charging your metabolism."24 The secret of these weight loss benefits were said to be spices like coriander, cumin, pepper, cinnamon and black pepper.

While noting the anti-inflammatory and blood thinning ability of turmeric, garlic and ginger, and that cinnamon can stabilize blood sugar, Reinagel asserted that losing 7 to 12 pounds the first week is often more about losing water rather than fat, a trajectory that can't be sustained longer than a few weeks.

Limiting your intake of net carbs (total carbs minus fiber) to under 40 to 50 grams per day and replacing them with healthy fats is necessary for lasting weight loss, as this will transition your body into primarily burning fat for fuel. Unless you continue limiting your net carbs going forward, the downward momentum generally dwindles, as does your metabolism. Further, unless exercise is a priority, muscle tissue may also begin to diminish, lowering your metabolism even more.

Regardless of how quickly weight is shed, if the same old eating habits climb back in the saddle, lost pounds are notorious for returning, and then some.

Ways to Keep Weight Off Once You've Lost It

The biggest hurdle people face when they double down on a diet plan that's drastically different from what future habits can sustain is that, too often, the weight comes right back. Here are some ways to help you lose weight and also keep it off once you've reached your goal:

Intermittent fasting helps reset your body to burn fat for fuel and helps optimize insulin sensitivity and mitochondrial health and energy production. It involves cutting calories in whole or in part, either a couple of days a week, every other day or even daily.

For instance, you may restrict your eating to a window of six to eight hours, choosing between having breakfast and lunch, or lunch and dinner, but avoid having both breakfast and dinner. It's one of the most effective interventions for normalizing your weight.

The amount of fiber in your diet is crucial for weight loss, as it is for general health. Eat foods known for keeping food moving smoothly through your colon, such as veggies, nuts and seeds such as chia.

Vitamin D, or lack thereof, derived to some extent from foods you eat and primarily via the sunshine you bask in on any given day, can have an impact on your ability to lose and maintain weight. One study25 showed that for more than 4,600 women 65 years old and older, low vitamin D levels contributed to mild weight gain.26

Reversing insulin/leptin resistance plays a key role in preventing obesity, metabolic disorders such as type 2 diabetes and inflammatory diseases like rheumatoid arthritis. Trading refined sugar and processed fructose for healthy fats will help optimize your insulin and leptin levels. For more detailed dietary guidance, please see my nutrition plan.

Exercise is extremely important in the quest for weight loss, as well as shoring up sagging muscles and keeping them firm and strong. Exercise also benefits your glucose, insulin and leptin levels by optimizing insulin/leptin receptor sensitivity, subsequently helping to prevent chronic disease.

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