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Spice It Up, Live Longer

Dec. 21, 2015|360 views

I’ve often mentioned that colorful whole fruits and vegetables are some of the most healthful foods you can eat. In nature, bright colors denote natural pigments. And natural pigments tend to be some of the most beneficial, potent antioxidant compounds around. Beta-carotene, lycopene, astaxanthin, anthocyanins—these and other plant pigments are responsible for a rainbow of appealing colors and a host of documented benefits among people who consume them. As a general guideline: If at least some of the food on your plate isn’t colorful, you’re probably not taking full advantage of the healing and health-promoting power of food.

Chili peppers are among some of the most brightly-colored vegetables. (Well, technically, they’re fruits. But we tend to think of fruit as the kind of food that would be good sprinkled on breakfast cereal. Somehow, blueberries seem more appealing for this purpose than red hot chili peppers.) In any event, a new observational study concludes that eating chilis routinely may cut your risk of dying by about 10%.

To be clear, an observational study cannot prove causality. As the name implies, it merely observes apparent associations. In this instance, researchers from the Chinese Academy of Medical Sciences looked at the consumption of spicy foods and compared it to total risk of death. In short, people who ate spicy foods two or more times per week were about 10% less likely to die from all causes than people who did not eat these foods. While observational studies are not conclusive, the larger the pool of subjects, the more convincing the data. In this case, investigators examined data from nearly one-half million Chinese people, enrolled in a study for four years or more. Furthermore, people who ate spicy food three to seven times per week enjoyed a 14% reduction in the risk of dying from all causes, compared to subjects who did not eat spicy foods regularly.

Eating chilis appears to have an especially beneficial effect on the risk of developing cancer, ischaemic heart, and respiratory system diseases, especially among women. Fresh and dried chilis were included in the study, and both were beneficial, but fresh chilis appeared to confer the greatest benefit. They were linked to a reduced risk of developing diabetes, for example. While it’s possible that chili lovers are actually healthier because of some other, unrelated factor that happens to correlate with chili eating (They walk farther to buy chilis?; They eat standing up?; Their food’s so hot, they eat less of it?…) it’s safe to say that eating red hot chili peppers won’t hurt you—and just might help you live longer.  

Jun Lv et al. Consumption of spicy foods and total and cause specific mortality: population based cohort study. BMJ, 2015 DOI: 10.1136/bmj.h3942