In the winter months it makes sense to add a little chilli to your dinner to warm things up, but the humble pepper has more benefits than simply adding spice to your supper...
1/ They can help you live longer
Are you keen to see in your centenary or run 100 marathons before you die? Then eat more curry. ‘Chillis could really be the spice of life!’ says Kate Percy, author of Go Faster Food. ‘According to a report published recently in the British Medical Journal, researchers at Harvard University found that in a study of nearly 500,000 people over seven years, those who ate spicy food three times a week cut their risk of dying by 14 per cent compared with people who abstained.’
Further analysis showed that eating fresh chillis (as opposed to the dried variety) could also lower the risk of death from cancer, heart disease and diabetes, all ailments that would definitely put you off your stride. ‘Fresh chillis are packed with vitamins,’ explains Percy. ‘Especially vitamin A and vitamin C, and an alkaloid compound called capsaicin, which is thought to help fight cancer and have anti-bacterial and analgesic qualities.’
2/ They can ease inflammation
As a high-impact exercise, running can take its toll. ‘Running causes inflammation in the muscles. This is nothing to worry about, it’s normal and necessary to induce the repair and rebuild mechanisms that allow us to make progress over time,’ says personal trainer and nutritionist Pollyanna Hale. 'In fact, the body is clever and naturally regulates its own production of anti-inflammatory and antioxidant agents to combat this. It’s all part of the process of getting stronger and fitter.’
‘But inflammation can become a problem if the damage occurring is larger than the body’s capacity to deal with it,’ adds Hale. ‘In other words, if you’re not recovering properly through adequate rest and good nutrition.’
This is where the humble chilli can help. ‘Chillies contain capsaicin, a natural anti-inflammatory which, when eaten, helps the body calm inflammation. Capsaicin acts as a natural pain reliever, and is being studied as an effective treatment for sensory nerve fiber disorders, including pain associated with arthritis, psoriasis, and diabetic neuropathy. Topical capsaicin is a recognised treatment for osteoarthritis pain, and it’s this property that could prove useful to runners in helping to combat Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness and joint pain that may arise.
'Of course any pain relief treatment should not be used as an excuse to ‘push through’ real pain as that could lead to further injury, but it may help speed up recovery time between exercise sessions.’
3/ They can aid weight loss
Adding spice to the menu can also aid weight loss, which is handy if you’re hoping to drop a few pounds before race day. ‘Adding chilli to food can actually help to reduce our appetite by tricking our body to feel less hungry so therefore eating significantly less,’ says fitness coach Karen Austin. ‘This can have a knock on effect to your next meal so overall you’ll eat less.’
Chilli can also help boost metabolism. ‘Chilli-based spices such as cayenne and paprika create heat within the body and stimulates a natural process called diet-induced thermogenesis, which means in simple terms that it helps us to burn up more calories than we store,’ adds Austin. ‘Also research has found that this process helps boost the amount of fat burned compared to carbohydrates which is after all what we want when trying to lose weight.’
4/ They boost your immune system
Red chilli peppers contain high levels of beta-carotene (or pro-vitamin A), which helps ward off infections prevalent during the cold winter months. The heat also stimulates secretions, which help to clear blocked noses and sinuses should you have already caught a nasty cold.
‘Chillies, like all vegetables, are a rich source of vitamins and minerals,’ says Hale. ‘But it’s the high content of vitamin C and beta-carotene, a precursor to vitamin A, as well as the antioxidant vitamin E, that really give chillies their immune boosting properties.’
Vitamin A is also essential for healthy mucous membranes, which line the nasal passages and lungs, as well as serving as the body's first line of defence against invading pathogens.