By Jessica Culver
If you want your body to look a little hotter, you might want to crank the heat in your diet, too. Turns out, spicing up your meals boosts not only flavour, but your overall health – protecting against cancer, improving blood flow, strengthening your digestive and immune systems, and slimming your waistline are just a few of the known benefits. “Instead of using over-the-counter medications to treat certain ailments, I prefer to use nature’s medicines – herbs and spices!” says Vandana Gujadhur, a registered dietitian from Medcan Clinic in Toronto, Ontario. “Supermarkets are stocked with these inexpensive products. Many of them are being proven effective and safe for preventing or treating many health conditions.”
You don’t even have to scorch your tongue to experience the health boosts. A study published in the Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry found that piperine -–the substance that gives black pepper its infamous mild taste – actually blocks the formation of new fat cells. Researchers from Daegu University in Korea also found that rats fed a high-fat diet gained less weight when given capsaicin (the active component of chili peppers).
But before you go all Peter Piper in an effort to be slimmer and healthier, take note: “People suffering from ulcers, heartburn, IBS, GERD, food sensitivities, and other digestive disorders should generally stay away from spicy foods to prevent aggravating the problem,” says Olya Voikin, a registered dietitian and Ayurvedic diet specialist in Vancouver, British Columbia.
With that being said, here are the top six hot options that’ll have you falling in a burning ring of fire. Sorry Johnny Cash: you’ve got nothing on these superfoods.
“Hot peppers are a great way to add flavour, aroma, and spice to dishes, without adding extra calories, fat, or salt,” says Gujadhur. And depending on the variety you get, hot peppers can be a great source of potassium and antioxidants like vitamins A, C, and E – great for maintaining healthy blood vessels and improving skin regeneration!
The “hot” component of peppers is capsaicin, which plays a role in appetite control, weight loss, and boosting your metabolism, says Voikin. The more capsaicin a pepper has, the hotter it is, as measured by the Scoville Heat Index. For example, sweet bell peppers rate zero on the index; jalapeños range from 2,500 to 5,000; cayenne ranges from 30,000 to 60,000; and habanero peppers can reach up to 300,000. The world’s hottest pepper is the Trinidad Scorpion Moruga Blend, with a heat index of just more than two million. Ouch!
Beyond aiding in weight loss, capsaicin is also good for your heart health in two major ways, according to a study presented in a 2012 meeting of the American Chemical Society. First, it lowers total cholesterol levels in the body by increasing its breakdown and excretion in the feces, as well as reducing LDL cholesterol levels in the blood. On top of that, capsaicinoids block the gene activity that causes muscles around blood vessels to constrict, thus allowing more blood to flow.
You can reap these hot rewards by adding a variety of spicy peppers to your meals, either raw or cooked. “Although cooking them might destroy some of the vitamins, the potent flavour and antioxidant properties are retained during the cooking process, so don’t hesitate to add them to your favourite dishes,” advises Voikin.
While it may not be the first food that comes to mind in terms of spiciness, garlic definitely has that trademark bite when eaten raw. Despite getting a bad rap for causing B.O. and un-kissable breath, garlic has quite a few redeeming factors as a superfood.
Garlic has been shown to lower blood pressure, slow down hardening of the arteries, and lower blood cholesterol levels, according to the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine. But to get these benefits, keep in mind how your garlic is prepared. “When you peel, chop, or crush fresh garlic, this helps to active the enzyme alliinase which in turn produces the sulphur compounds,” says Gujadhur. Cooking garlic, while great for flavour, destroys these active compounds.
And beyond repelling vampires, garlic is super effective at fighting food borne illnesses, too. According to research published in the Journal of Antimicrobial Chemotherapy, diallyl sulphide (a compound in garlic) was 100 times more effective than antibiotics at fighting off campylobacter, the most common bacterial cause of food borne illness.
If you want to further enhance garlic’s health benefits, try getting a little Mediterranean with your next meal – a 2013 study from the University of Barcelona found that combining garlic, tomato, olive oil, and onion (a basic sofrito) boosts the levels of polypenols and cartenoids, helping to prevent cardiovascular disease and cancer.