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It's pretty wild how a simple dash of chili flakes, cumin, or another spice can totally transform a dish, taking it from bland to an explosion of beautiful flavor. But many people have a love-hate relationship with spicy food. The flavor? That's love right there. But the stomach issues that sometimes come after? Not so much.
To help us understand more about how spice affects our digestive system and whether it's time to lean all the way in and embrace spicy food or give it up for good, we figured we should do what we do best and reach out to the experts.
Ahead, three nutritionists help us understand: Is spicy food bad for you?
Meet the Expert
- Marta Ferraz-Valles is a registered outpatient dietitian at the Institute for Digestive Health and Liver Disease at Mercy Medical Center in New York. She has years of experience in nutrition counseling for weight loss and gastrointestinal conditions.
- Liz McMahon is a Philedelphia-based registered dietitian with over 10 years of experience in the field. She is currently a clinical dietitian where her practice has ranged from premature infants in the Intensive Care Nursery (ICN) to oncology patients.
- Brigitte Zeitlin, MPH, RD, CDN is a registered dietitian and has been counseling clients for the past eight years. She is also the founder of her online platform, BZ Nutrition.
Is Spicy Food Bad For Digestion?
Digging into a spicy meal isn't necessarily bad for digestion, but nutritionists say it can pose problems and trigger symptoms among people who have digestive issues like acid reflux, irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), and inflammatory bowel disease (IBD). Put simply: Spicy foods don’t usually cause a digestive problem, but they may aggravate these problems.
"Because every person’s gut health is unique to them, spicy foods can cause one person to have an upset stomach and leave other people feeling totally fine," Zeitlin says. "If you already have reflux or IBS, then typically, spicy foods can cause you to feel more uncomfortable and kick-start your usual symptoms; for example, frequent trips to the bathroom."
Nutritionists raise an important point, telling us that sometimes it's not the spice that causes the digestive issues, but the other foods you've eaten in that same meal. "Eating hot wings may cause digestive distress due to the fried wings, not the hot sauce," Ferraz-Valles says. "If you eat a double cheeseburger with French fries and hot sauce, the digestive symptoms may be due to the overall fatty content of the meal, not the spicy part."
Can Spicy Food Be Healthy?
Many spicy foods are loaded with nutrients and offer plenty of nutritional benefits. Chili peppers, for example are a great source of vitamin E, along with vitamin A, vitamin B6, vitamin K, iron, and fiber. Meanwhile, spices like chili, turmeric, cayenne, and black pepper are believed to have anti-inflammatory properties.
If you enjoy the taste of spicy food and it doesn't bother your stomach, nutritionists say there's no reason to shy away from it. "Know that the heat, or some light tingle or sweat on your nose, is not the same as digestive issues and is a common experience with spicy foods," Zeitlin says. "It is really all about personal preference here on whether spicy foods belong in your diet or not."
Many chili peppers also contain a compound called capsaicin that is said to reduce inflammation and pain, among other health benefits. "Capsaicin has also been shown to help lower the risk of heart disease by helping to regulate blood pressure and lowering your LDL (or bad) cholesterol," Zeitlin says.
Of course, you'll want to be mindful of your food choices and not assume you're getting nutritional benefits simply because your food contains spices. "Eating hot wings won’t promote weight loss in spite of the capsaicin," Ferraz-Valles reminds us.
Should People With Certain Digestive Conditions Avoid Spicy Food?
You may have trouble with spicy food if you have a gastrointestinal problem like IBS or IBD, but this certainly doesn't mean anyone with stomach issues needs to avoid every type of spicy food forever. McMahon suggests eliminating spicy foods from your diet and then monitoring your tolerance as you reintroduce them. "You don't want to eliminate foods unnecessarily if you're not having a reaction to them," she says.
Rather than trying to manage a potential food intolerance on your own, it's important to see a registered dietitian, gastroenterologist, or another healthcare professional for guidance on digestive issues and elimination diets. If you're experiencing bloating, vomiting, diarrhea, and other uncomfortable issues after eating spicy foods but don't have any known gastrointestinal problems, "It's important to get evaluated to make sure something more serious isn't going on," McMahon says. These professionals know the ins and outs of digestive issues and are trained to get to the root of your problem, ultimately finding a way to make you feel better.
If you are experiencing gut-related issues every time you eat spicy food, this could contribute to other health complications, so don't delay getting in touch with a doctor for treatment. "If you have an illness like IBS or IBD and spicy foods are a known trigger, then eating them frequently could cause increased symptoms, like diarrhea, which could lead to other healthy complications, like dehydration," McMahon says.
Myth-busting: You Won't Get An Ulcer From Eating Spicy Food
Many people believe spicy foods can lead to ulcers in the stomach lining or small intestine, but our expert nutritionists agree that this is one of the most common myths floating around about spicy food. "If you already have ulcers, they can aggravate your symptoms, but they do not cause them on their own," Zeitlin says.
Eating spicy foods may actually prevent peptic ulcers by inhibiting acid production in the stomach, Ferraz-Valles says. But it's important to note that for some people who already have peptic ulcers, spicy food may make their ulcers worse or cause more symptoms. In this case, the spicy food might aggravate the ulcer, but it doesn't cause it.
The Final Takeaway
If you don't have any existing digestive issues, spice is most likely a perfectly acceptable component to your diet—if you like the way it tastes and if you don't experience any stomach issues after consuming it, of course. But if you have a digestive condition like colitis, Crohn's disease, IBS, or acid reflux, you may find that spicy food makes your symptoms flare. In that cause, nutritionists agree it's best to avoid spicy food. "If you personally find spicy foods to give you indigestion because you are burping, nauseas, gassy, constipated, or have diarrhea after eating spicy foods, then you should listen to your body and avoid eating them," Zeitlin says.