Is Spice Naughty or Nice?

Is Spice Naughty or Nice?

Dietician Wendy Wu debates the health benefits of spicy foods

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Foodie  Foodie Your Guide to Good Taste  on 27 Aug '21


Well, it depends on who you ask. Traditional Chinese parents would have you believe that spicy foods could be the root of all your problems. But how much truth in that is there really? You might be surprised.

A Western doctor or dietician might encourage you to explore the wonderful world of spices. Capsaicin, the chemical compound found mainly in the seeds and ridges of chilli peppers, relieves pain, lowers blood pressure, protects the stomach lining, improves circulation and fights inflammation. Chilli peppers are also high in vitamins A and C, which are powerful antioxidants.

On top of all these benefits, spicy foods may also help with weight loss by suppressing the appetite and increasing satiety. The spices slow down your eating and make you want to chug down water in between bites. Keep in mind that you should drink water instead of milk to fully reap the weight-loss benefits.

Turmeric, the bright yellow spice in curry powder, is another one that’s great for you. Curcumin, a chemical component of turmeric, fights inflammation, acts as an antioxidant and may help to kill cancer cells.



Years ago, many believed that ulcers were caused by stress, smoking, alcohol and eating spicy foods. We now know that most ulcers are caused by a bacteria called H. Pylori or by taking medications like aspirin, naproxen and ibuprofen (non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs, or NSAIDs) on a regular basis. Having said that, those already diagnosed with a bowel disorder or ulcer should avoid eating spicy foods because they can cause increased discomfort.


Yunnan mushrooms with dried chillies at Chilli Fagara


Yin and yang

In traditional Chinese medicine, balance between the forces of yin and yang is key. A TCM practitioner will advise you to avoid spicy foods if you have a yin deficiency. So if you’re experiencing night sweats, greying hair, hot flashes or adult acne, you should stay away from spicy foods, fried foods, highly refined carbohydrates and stimulants like caffeine, alcohol and cigarettes, according to Chinese medicine.

RELATED: The ABCs of TCM

But does spicy food specifically cause acne? Look back on your overall meals for the week. Were any of the dishes cooked with a lot of oil? Were they deep-fried? Did you touch your face after eating something greasy? Have you been eating lots of sweets, sugary drinks and other refined carbohydrates? A lot of dairy, perhaps?

We now know that acne is often caused by eating excessive amounts of sweets and dairy products. Fried foods don’t cause acne, but if the grease touches your face, it can clog up the pores. So it seems spicy foods are not at fault for causing acne after all.


Photo credit: Virginia Long on Unsplash


The bottom line

Since there is no evidence that spicy foods are bad for you, embrace them for their many health benefits. Just be mindful of the ways in which spicy foods are prepared. Many of the hot sauces on the market are loaded with salt, so moderation is key, but a dash here and there can be a wonderful way to add flavour to dishes. Bring on the curry and chilli peppers!

RELATED: Lacto-fermented chilli sauce recipe


Author Wendy Wu is a registered dietician who formerly lived in Hong Kong and is now based in San Francisco.This article originally appeared in print in Foodie Issue 66.


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