Spicy foods are a bit of a mystery.
As an article in the week's New York Times wondered: Why is it that we find such pleasure in pain? I mean, these hot sauce bottles are plastered with words like "death" and "atomic"... and we like them.
One theory is that it's simply for the thrill -- like riding a roller coaster or running a marathon. Humans, oddly, find pleasure in things that, on the surface, should be really freaking scary and painful. In these cases, it's mind vs. body, and mind wins.
The other theory is that spicy foods have health benefits, and so our bodies crave them. Some of the most-studied bennies are:
1. Weight Loss: For one, the extra kick of hot sauce or a chopped jalapeno can make even the most bland diet food more palatable, causing you to be more likely to stick with your weight loss plan. In addition, they may jack up your metabolism. Studies show that the main compound in chilies, called capsaicin, has a thermogenic effect and may cause the body to burn bonus calories for 20 minutes post chow-down.
2. Heart Health: Studies show that cultures that eat the most spicy food have much lower incidence of heart attack and stroke. Potential reasons: Chili peppers can reduce the damaging effects of LDL (bad cholesterol) and capsaicin may fight inflammation, which has been flagged as a risk factor for heart issues.
3. Cancer Prevention: According to the American Association for Cancer Research, capsaicin has the ability to kill some cancer and leukemic cells. One particular spice, turmeric, found in curry powder and some mustards, may slow the spread of cancer and growth of tumors. "It has the same effects on the body as certain cancer drugs do." says Gregory A. Plotnikoff, M.D., senior consultant for health care innovation at Allina Hospitals and Clinics in Minnesota. Pair it with black pepper to absorb 2,000 percent more turmeric. Fantastic on roasted veggies or kebabs, or in soups.
4. Lower Blood Pressure: Vitamins A and C strengthen the heart muscle walls, and the heat of the pepper increases blood flow throughout your body. All of this equals a stronger cardiovascular system.
5. Fewer Blow-Your-Top Moments: Spicy foods boost production of feel-good hormones, such as serotonin. So they may help ease depression and stress.
Not a fan of crazy-spicy food? You can still get the health benefits by adding spices with a more tolerable zing to your dishes. We love sliced ginger in a cup of tea, shrimp coated in cumin and coriander then sauteed in a skillet, adding red pepper flakes to stir-fry or whipping up a delish chicken curry.