The phrase “red hot chili pepper” just took on a whole new meaning.
At a conference in Maryland this week, researchers from the University of Wisconsin provided data to back up the claim that chili peppers may curb obesity. Analyzing the effect of exercise in mice with or without capsaicin (the main ingredient in chili peppers), their results imply that it can prevent weight gain in a high calorie diet.
Capsaicin, the ingredient that makes hot peppers hot, has long been considered a weight management tool. By stimulating thermogenesis (heat production) in brown fat cells, it triggers the body to burn energy stored in white fat cells. What’s new in this study is the revelation that the mechanism may be effective even in a diet that remains high in calories and fat.
While the idea itself is encouraging, the implications are not. Since the dietary capsaicin was not shown to “modify food or water intake” in the mice, researchers concluded that managing calorie intake may not be necessary. “Our group's laboratory data revealed that ‘dietary capsaicin…suppresses high-fat-diet-induced obesity," said the study’s lead scientist, Dr. Baskaran Thyagarajan.
Statistics from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention show that nearly 35 percent, or roughly one third, of 78.6 million U.S. adults are considered obese. Conditions associated with this include heart disease, stroke, and type-2 diabetes. Additionally, an estimated one in six children and adolescents ages 6 to 19 is considered obese.
According to the Mayo Clinic, a high-calorie diet “lacking in fruits and vegetables, full of fast food … and laden with high-calorie beverages” is one of the main causes of these conditions. But rather than modifying an unhealthy diet to include more nutrient-rich foods, this diet would merely add one more thing to an already damaging menu of foods.
Outside of the issue of an unhealthy diet, the peppers themselves come with a host of potentially dangerous side effects. An extremely irritant material, capsaicin requires proper hazardous material garb like gloves and goggles, just to be handled. High concentrations of capsaicin are so toxic, in fact, they can be used as weapons—hence why it’s used as the main ingredient in pepper spray. The extreme heat of the pepper has also been shown to increase acid reflux and heartburn, two things that those with obesity already battle.
Heidi Allison, author of The Chili Pepper Diet: The Natural Way to Control Cravings, Boost Metabolism, and Lose Weight agrees that the chili peppers may be effective in curbing weight loss, but doesn’t necessarily endorse the plan. “You have to learn to deal with food…in a healthy way,” she says.
While adding chili peppers to soups and sides may be helpful, remaining on a high-calorie diet may still leave dieters vulnerable to health risks. “We found success with a moderate fat, lean protein, lots of veggies, and limited carbs [diet],” Allison says. “I advocate healthy fats in moderate amounts.”
Whether or not nutritionists agree with the plan, Thyagarajan and his team hope to bring the research to human clinical trials. "The main goal of our work is to expand the knowledge of the mechanism by which capsaicin antagonizes obesity,” he says. “[And] advance the proof of principle of the anti-obesity potential of dietary capsaicin.”