Healthy Heat

Spice, heat, fire—some of us can’t handle even a touch of it in our food; others can’t get enough. Regardless of personal thresholds, many people, including some Central Texan foodies, believe that spicy foods are actually good for us—from the “Hot Weather Food” on Lenoir’s menu, to the uber-local offerings at Dai Due, where Chef Jesse Griffiths believes that if fiery ingredients like hot peppers thrive here along with us, we should probably try to work out some kind of arrangement on the plate.

Most of us know that capsaicin, a chemical compound made up of carbon, hydrogen, oxygen and nitrogen, is responsible for the burning sensation spicy foods induce. It should be noted that “spiciness,” when referring to heat, isn’t a flavor at all—it’s a sensation, like pain. We also know that it makes those of us who consume it feel good by triggering the release of endorphins. But are there other, less superficial health benefits to fiery foods? The answer depends on whom you ask, and what it is you’re eating that’s so spicy.

“You’re going to sweat,” says Lenoir Chef Todd Duplechan, “which cools you down, but you also feel lighter.” He also notes that you can learn a lot from just listening to your body. “You eat a bunch of enchiladas in an air-conditioned place,” he says, “and when you leave, you feel…heavy…[like your] body is shutting down.” Lenoir’s menu links warmer weather and warmer foods by drawing on what’s available at local farmers markets (i.e., what grows well here during the hot season) and by looking at the cuisines of other torrid places. “Whole grains, vegetables first,” he says. “Not a lot of cream; not a lot of butter…lighter, citrusy, acidic…and, of course, lots of chilies. You can eat that when it’s 110 degrees outside. They’re very healthy diets.”

While Lenoir’s menu is inspired by hot-climate cuisines around the world, both Lenoir’s and Dai Due’s menus focus on things that grow specifically in and around Central Texas. “Hot peppers grow in hot places for a reason,” says Chef Griffiths. “The correlation between spicy foods and the equator goes beyond a taste aesthetic; the hot pepper is a small, condensed package of vitamins and healthful properties.”

But is there science to back up this hot-equals-health theory? Leidamarie Tirado-Lee, a spicy food enthusiast with a Ph.D. in biological sciences, is quick to point out that “human health is very complicated,” but her investigations into the topic point to more good news than bad. Spicy foods are thought to have the ability to protect against cholesterol buildup and possibly even kill cancer cells, plus they’re packed with antimicrobial and antioxidant properties. Many who claim such benefits point to a Chinese study published in the British Medical Journal (BMJ) that found an inverse correlation between “habitual consumption of spicy foods” and mortality. (Other behavioral factors must always be considered, however; that study also found the inverse correlation to be stronger in those who didn’t drink alcohol.) Another study published in Physiology & Behavior found that cayenne pepper can help with weight management by increasing body temperature, called thermogenesis, while suppressing appetite. The same researchers also found cayenne to be more effective in those less familiar with it—all the more reason for the uninitiated to turn up the heat! 

Dr. Will Mitchell of Austin’s Merritt Wellness Center—which specializes in East Asian medicine and nutrition (in collaboration with Western medicine)—mentions a variety of health benefits related to spicy foods, from alleviating allergies and excessive phlegm to treating cardiac patients suffering from angina. “It opens up circulation everywhere,” he says. Mitchell also notes that vegetables in the pepper family are rich in vitamin C and bioflavonoids, which work together to support circulation and treat inflammatory conditions such as arthritis. Dr. Daphne Miller, author of “The Jungle Effect: Healthiest Diets from Around the World,” also sings the anti-inflammatory praises of certain spices. She writes that turmeric, for instance (which is more biting than hot), gives “pharmaceutical-grade anti-inflammatories a run for their money.” 

For the greatest health benefits, Mitchell recommends eating whole peppers—that way, you get the “bioflavonoid-rich pithy part inside. There is a lot less benefit in a pepper that has been cored out,” he says—citing roasted shishitos as a personal favorite. Another pungent food Mitchell recommends is radishes, which he says have “incredible health benefits,” such as detoxification of lymph and liver cells as well as increased production of antioxidant enzymes, which counteract the damaging effects of oxidation in tissue. 

Mitchell does caution against overeating hot peppers (especially big-time burners like ghost peppers), which can cause gastrointestinal pain and night sweats. Likewise, Austin Gastroenterology lists spicy foods as likely to exacerbate ulcers and acid reflux, though neither is said to be caused by them. Also, Tirado-Lee points out that “many scientists believe chili peppers evolved to make mammals less likely to eat them,” a fact that could quite sensibly be used as evidence that “actively seek[ing] out peppers is crazy.” That very argument finds some support in a Pennsylvania State University study, which found that thrill- or sensation-seeking behavior is “strongly linked” with an affinity for spicy foods. Our heat preferences might essentially be determined by how daring we are—or, some might say, how masochistic. After all, spice does equal pain in a physiological sense.

When it comes to eating hot for health, the best advice—and probably the hardest to follow when consuming things we love—is to use common sense and enjoy in moderation. It’s also good to note, when trying your stomach by fire, that heat comes in many forms—from healthier options like veggie-studded curries, to greasy, hot sauce-slathered fried chicken. So choose wisely, and may your diet hurt so good…and do you some good, too.

By Amy McCullough • Photography by Jenna Northcutt