(CNN) There’s no magic pill that will cure you of your cravings. But there is something that may help the effort, and it’s all-natural.
Research has shown that simply spicing up your diet may help you consume less salt and possibly less sugar, while potentially improving your health even beyond the reduction of salt and sugar.
There is more consistent evidence that spicy food helps curb salt cravings than sugar.
In a study involving more than 600 people from China whose brains were analyzed with PET/CT scans, researchers found that regions stimulated by intake of both salty and spicy foods overlapped. Because of similar activities taking place in this shared space (think of the overlapping parts of a Venn diagram), consuming spicy foods effectively enhanced one’s sensitivity to salt, thereby helping people crave and consume less salt.
“We think that spicy food can trick our brain when tasting salty food. It makes us taste the same (level of) saltiness even when a reduced amount of salt is actually consumed,” said study author Dr. Zhiming Zhu, professor and director of the Department of Hypertension and Endocrinology at the Third Military Medical University in Chongqing, China.
In fact, researchers found that people who regularly enjoy spicy foods consumed 2.5 grams less salt in a day (that’s 1,000 fewer milligrams of sodium) compared with those who typically steer clear of spice. They also had lower blood pressure.
It remains to be seen whether the findings can be replicated in other populations outside China, said Richard David Wainford, associate professor in the Department of Pharmacology at the Boston University School of Medicine, in an accompanying editorial. Still, “a lifestyle intervention that adds taste to the diet, in the form of extra spice and flavor, versus reduction of the pleasure given by the salt we add to our food, may have more success as a public health strategy to promote population-level dietary salt reduction,” he added.
Spice may have the potential to curb sugar cravings too, though the evidence is mixed. In one study involving 40 students from Denmark, when chili pepper was added to sweet, sour and bitter meals, participants experienced a greater desire to eat sweet foods compared with meals without chili added.
In another study, also from Denmark, people experienced a decreased desire for salty and spicy foods when they ate tomato soup with cayenne pepper compared with eating the soup without pepper. But their desire for sweet and fatty foods significantly increased when they consumed the spicy soup.
No pain, no weight gain?
Capsaicin is the compound in chili peppers that is responsible for the burning sensation we experience when eating them. The compound has the ability to suppress sweet taste, which could also explain some findings.
But while some may enjoy the heat that capsaicin produces, it may also come with an unintended consequence.
“Capsaicin helps fight pain. Most of the time, you hear about this as a topical cream, but eating chili peppers also has benefits. It may be that when the pain goes away, you’re stimulated to consume more sweet foods,” said Mary-Jon Ludy, an associate professor of clinical nutrition at Bowling Green State University.
In a meta-analysis, involving more than 70 studies, funded by the National Institutes of Health and the McCormick Science Institute, researchers state that the balance of the literature suggests the capsaicin suppresses appetite, though the magnitude of the effects is small. “Purposeful inclusion of these compounds in the diet may aid weight management, albeit modestly,” the study stated.
(Note that the National Institutes of Health is a federal government agency, and the McCormick Science Institute is an independent research organization that is owned and funded by spice product manufacturer McCormick & Co. Inc. The company said it does not influence the science institute’s research priorities.)
The meta-analysis included the Danish study that found increased sugar cravings among those who consumed spicy meals. But it also included a study that found adding spice can actually curb sugar cravings. In that study, when people added half a teaspoon of red pepper to their lunch, they had a decreased desire to eat sugary, fatty and salty foods, and ate about 70 fewer calories at their next meal. The effects were seen only among those who didn’t regularly consume red pepper.
“I think that there’s something in the novelty of the stimulus that would allow you to eat less,” said Ludy, who authored the study and the meta-analysis. “In terms of the work with red pepper, I think that that’s an important piece of the puzzle. If you are adding a spicy meal every couple of weeks, it might be enough to have an effect … but if you have it every day, the effect goes away, because you get used to it.”
A little dash will do ya
To get started with spice, Ludy recommends sprinkling red pepper flakes into eggs in the morning. You can also use spice when making a rub for meat or when seasoning vegetables, soups, pasta or curry dishes.
She also recommends adding red pepper flakes to a meal in anticipation of a tempting dessert. “It may give you that extra piece of security,” she said. Though not specific to sweet taste, cinnamon, ginger and saffron are other pungent spices with appetite suppressive effects, according to Ludy.
However you choose to use spice, it’s wise to start slowly. “Remember that a tiny bit of spice can go a long way!” Ludy said. If the heat is an issue, you can calm your taste buds by pairing hot spices with healthy fats, such as avocados and nuts, according to Ludy. “They help break down the chemical that causes the burn.”
If you’re new to spicy peppers, she recommends starting with milder varieties, such as jalapeno or serrano, which cause less burn than cayenne or habanero. “These peppers still contain some capsaicin but not as much. Although I haven’t researched it directly, my guess is that there would still be appetite effects (perhaps of a lesser magnitude) … but if you can’t tolerate higher quantities of spice, something is better than nothing, right?”
Lisa Drayer is a nutritionist, an author and a CNN health and nutrition contributor.