By Cassandra Forsythe-Pribanic, PhD, RD
We’ve all seen them: those novelty condiment stores, usually in the Southwest part of the US, that carry every hot and spicy seasoning created. From Mad Dog Firey Sauce to Holy Jolika Hot Red Pepper Sauce, you just know your taste buds are going to cry in pain. Nevertheless, for some (insane) reason, you still add a drop or two to your food. It’s like riding a roller coaster; you experience an extreme, heart-pounding, thrill of hurdling your body through the air without actually causing any permanent harm (other than a near heart attack). With these hot red pepper sauces, you’ve created a feeling of danger within your senses that sends your heart racing and your sweat glands pouring. And, at the same time - if you didn’t know it already -you’ve adding one more arsenal to your fat loss battle. What could be better?
Hot Red Peppers: The Weight Loss Weapon of Choice
I know what you must be thinking: “Of course hot peppers can help me lose weight, when I put them in my food I can barely eat one bite! Not being able to eat food equals weight loss. Duh!”
Well, this may be true, but who wants to starve themselves to fit into their favorite pair of jeans? And, what if I told you that you don’t even have to put hot peppers in your food for them help you lose a pant size?
That’s right, much of the scientific research performed with red hot peppers is done in an encapsulated form, and is found to be more effective than when it’s placed in food. Yes, there are studies with capsaicin (the active ingredient in hot red pepper) added to food, but it comes with compliance limitations – people can’t eat it on a regular basis because it’s too hot. Also, it’s suggested that the effects of capsaicin accumulate over time to produce greater results. Research subjects who take extracts of this fiery fat burner in a capsule form show more benefits for energy expenditure and weight loss than those who take it in a meal (Yoshioka M et al, 2004).
But, this all comes within the context of a healthy eating pattern; you can’t binge and purge, or add hot red pepper capsules to a diet of coffee and donuts and expect it to make a difference. You also have to exercise. No dietary supplement will ever cause the weight to melt off you if you don’t put in some additional physical work. It doesn’t matter if it’s training for your local 5K run or if it’s kicking your own butt in bootcamp class, you still need to make an effort to lose unsightly body fat.
What is Capsaicin?
Capsaicin is the major heat-producing component in hot red peppers. These peppers come from plants belonging to the genus Capsicum, which include sweet bell peppers (red, yellow and green), and hot chili peppers (ancho, banana, habanero, jalepeno, etc). Obviously hot peppers contain more capsaicin than sweet bell peppers, and in fact, sweet bell peppers don’t contain any capsaicin at all due to a recessive gene that eliminates its production.
The amount of capsaicin, or spicy heat, delivered in a pepper is rated within a unit of measure called the Scoville scale. The number of Scoville Heat Units (SHU) in this scale tells you how much capsaicin is present. Below is a chart showing you Scoville ratings of different peppers with pure capsaicin (also spelled capsaician) having the highest ranking and bell peppers having the least.
Capsaicin is found within the fleshy parts of peppers that holds the seeds, mainly the pepper membranes. In fact, the seeds themselves do not produce any capsaicin, although the highest concentration of capsaicin can be found in the white pith around the seeds
How Does Capsaicin Help You Get Rid of Body Fat?
There are three main mechanisms by which capsaicin can help you fight the battle of the bulge:
1. Increases energy expenditure
2. Deters fat cell growth
3. Reduces food intake
Enhanced Energy Output
Through activation of the sympathetic nervous system (SNS), capsaicin increases catecholamine secretion from the adrenal medulla, which stimulates beta-1-adrenergic receptors in the body (Diepvens K 2007). These receptors increase activity of muscular tissues responsible for increasing heart rate, contracting blood vessels and dilating airway passages – the “Flight or Fight” syndrome. All of these actions increase your total energy output and burns extra calories. And, in support, both human and animal studies have shown that the increased thermogenesis (calorie-burning) from capsaicin is abolished when beta-adrenergic blockers, such as propanolol, are administered.
Another route for amplified thermogenesis from capsaicin is both up- and down-regulation of uncoupling proteins (UCP) in the body (Faraut B et al, 2007, Masuda Y et al, 2003). The uncoupling proteins 1, 2 and 3 (UCP1, UCP2, and UCP3) are negative ion carrier-proteins located in the inner membrane of mitochondria (the power house of your cells). These proteins are greatly responsible for increased energy expenditure via cellular energy wastage (losing energy instead of storing it). Animal and cellular research has shown that various capsaicin dosages can stimulate these UCPs and cause enhanced calorie-burning.
In recognition of these cellular and animal studies, human studies with capsaicin have also shown improved energy output following hot red pepper intake. Japanese researchers showed that when 10 g of powdered hot pepper (containing capsaicin) was added to either a high fat or high carbohydrate mixed meal, diet-induced thermogenesis (energy expenditure from eating a meal) was significantly increased for up to 3 hours following the meal (Yoshioka M et al, 1998).
Other Japanese researchers showed 3 mg of hot red pepper increased energy expenditure in lean, healthy women by 10% for 30 minutes (Matsumoto T et al, 2000), while Lim et al, 1997 showed an energy expenditure increase of 25% in healthy lean young mean also for 30 minutes following 10 g of hot red pepper intake.
Fat Cell Fighter
Capsaicin from hot red peppers has been shown to actually change how fat cells function. Instead of growing larger and larger like they usually do, capsaicin can help shrink fat cells by making them more metabolically active.
Recently reported in the 2010 Journal of Proteome Research (Joo JI et al, 2010), using a novel research tool called proteomic analysis, Korean scientists demonstrated that capsaicin changed the activity of proteins found within white adipose tissue (WAT) – aka, unsightly body fat – of rats and made these proteins act more like those found in brown adipose tissue (BAT). BAT is the type of fat tissue only found in infants and hibernating bears that produces and expends energy rather than stores it. These scientists suggest that capsaicin can remodel WAT into mitochondrial-rich cells, with their high capacity for fatty acid oxidation, and reduce our over-abundance of human obesity. Although this research was done in animals, it explains many of the fat-fighting effects attributed to hot pepper consumption.
Also reported in the Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry (Chin-Lin Hsu et al, 2007), Taiwanese researchers found that when capsaicin was applied to immature adipocytes (fat cells), it both inhibited adipogenesis (fat cell growth) and differentiation (change into mature fat cells). Thus, the cells did not increase in size or turn into full-grown fat cells.
Then, in humans, people given a supplement containing 0.4 mg capsaicin and 625 mg green tea extract for two weeks showed a drop in body fat compared to their starting values. The effects were more prominent in those with higher body fat levels, but were consistently decreased in each person (Tsi D et al, 2003).
Reduced Food Consumption
Yes, adding hot red pepper extract to food could make you eat less because your tongue feels like it’s on fire, but in the research setting, human investigations have shown diminished food intake following hot pepper supplementation.
Researchers from the Netherlands took healthy men and women and gave them a supplement containing 0.9 g hot red pepper (0.25% capsaicin; 80, 000 Scoville heat units) with tomato juice 30 minutes before they consumed four daily meals. After taking the capsules, total energy intake and fat intake was significantly decreased, while satiety was significantly increased, in both men and women (Westerterp-Plantenga MS et al , 2005). Thus, even in the short term, capsaicin can help decrease the amount of food you’d normally eat.
In a similar study, researchers in Quebec (Yoshioka M et al, 2004) also gave healthy, fit, men and women capsules containing 0.9 g of hot red pepper (0.3% capsaicin/ 55 000 Scoville Heat Units) 10 minutes before they were presented with a buffet of food that they were told to eat until they were full. This was compared to adding hot red pepper extract to a soup before hitting the buffet. All subjects were required to finish eating within 30 minutes. After analysis, the researchers found that food intake was decreased by an average of 8.5% compared to several different placebo and lower dose conditions – mostly from a significant decrease in fat intake (<13.3%).
These scientists found that that mechanism by which capsaicin reduced food intake occurred after it had passed through the mouth (thus, your tongue doesn’t have to suffer), and involves activation of the SNS: heart rate variability was significantly increased with the capsules compared to no capsules and to a soup that the subjects considered to be too spicy due to the addition of hot red pepper (i.e., an intolerably spicy meal actually desensitizes neurons and has no effect on food intake). Therefore, to get maximal benefits from capsaicin in your quest to eat less food and control your body weight, you don’t have to experience fiery feelings within your mouth, or ruin a good, healthy meal.
One of the mechanisms for improved satiety with capsaicin intake is changes in gut hormones responsible for stimulating hunger. The same researchers from the Netherlands (Smeets AJ & Westerterp-Plantenga MS, 2009) found that a meal containing capsaicin increased the hormone GLP-1,which stimulates satiety, and lowered ghrelin, which also tells the brain you’re full.
Capsaicin: Your Fat Loss Tool of Choice
As you’ve now learned by several different scientific sources, capsaicin can assist you in fighting body fat and changing your body for the better. By increasing energy expenditure, interfering with fat cell growth and helping you eat less, the active component of hot red peppers, capsaicin, can help you shed unwanted pounds and reach your body composition goals. And the best part? You don’t have to overheat a great meal to get the effects! Instead, you can take this pungent powerhouse in capsule form to get all the great body-beautifying benefits. But, if you still enjoy the taste of Franks Red Hot Sauce or Death Valley Drops, go ahead and indulge – if anything, it’ll help you eat even less, but will still let you experience the thrill of near-death encounters.
Joo JI et al. Proteomic analysis for antiobesity potential of capsaicin on white adipose tissue in rats fed with a high fat diet. J Proteome Res. 2010 Jun 4;9(6):2977-87.
Lim K et al. Dietary red pepper ingestion increases carbohydrate oxidation at rest and during exercise in runners. Med Sci Sports Exerc. 1997 Mar;29(3):355-61.
Yoshioka M et al. Combined effects of red pepper and caffeine consumption on 24 h energy balance in subjects given free access to foods. Br J Nutr. 2001 Feb;85(2):203-11.
Yoshioka M et al. Maximum tolerable dose of red pepper decreases fat intake independently of spicy sensation in the mouth. British Journal of Nutrition , Volume 91 , Issue 06 , Jun 2004 , pp 991-995
Tsi D et al. Clinical study on the combined effect of capsaicin, green tea extract and essence of chicken on body fat content in human subjects. J Nutr Sci Vitaminol (Tokyo) 49: 437–441, 2003
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