Food and Nutrition

Is Spicy Food Good for You if It Can Cause Digestive Distress? Here’s What an RD Has To Say

Emily Laurence

Photo: Stocksy/Cameron Whitman
If you've ever experienced a bout of digestive distress or heartburn after eating a particularly fiery meal, your (albeit reasonable) instinct may be that whatever you ate should be avoided at all costs. It's something you may have heard before: Oh, no spicy food for me thanks! 

The unpleasant symptoms are enough to make you wonder, is spicy food good for you? It's a tricky question since the herbs used to season fiery dishes are full of anti-inflammatory benefits. How can you reap their benefits without succumbing to unpleasant side effects?

What is spicy food?

When asking the question, "is spicy food good for you," registered dietitian Nour Zibdeh, RD, says it's important to think about what "spicy food" even is. After all, technically any food seasoned with herbs from your pantry could be considered spicy. "A lot of people think of spicy food as hot foods, such as dishes made with capsaicin or jalapeño," Zibdeh says.

As an Ayurvedic chef and the author of Saffron Soul, Mira Manek says she cooks with spices known to add warmth to food on a regular basis. She explains that herbs like turmeric, cumin, and ginger play an important role in Ayurvedic cooking, but she adds that they are often paired with other spices to taper the flavor, bringing more balance. "Spicy food doesn't have to mean 'spicy food,'" she says. "Mustard seeds, coriander seeds, fenugreek seeds...All these are spices and they can be used to balance out other spices like cumin or red chili powder," she says.

But Manek says that even consumed on their own, spices offer a bounty of specific health benefits for people of every dosha (one's emotional and physical constitution). For example, spices are high in antioxidants, which is directly linked to brain and heart health. "Fiery vegetables and spices have been scientifically linked to boosting metabolism," Zibdeh says, indicating another benefit. So in terms of if spicy food is healthy, the answer is a resounding yes. But Zibdeh adds that when it comes to heavily-spiced meals, there's a difference between asking if they're "healthy" and if they're "good for you"; the two aren't mutually exclusive.

Good for you is another story; a more subjective one. Zibdeh says that if fiery foods are causing you heartburn, acid reflux, diarrhea, or other issues, it may be best to minimize them. She points out that there are literally hundreds of beneficial herbs out there; there's no need to consume ones that don't make you feel great when you can choose others that won't irritate your digestive system and still are full of anti-inflammatory properties. Some to consider are cinnamon, fennel, and fenugreek.

But before you eliminate fiery herbs, spices, and other aromatics completely, it's good to consider why they may be causing you digestive distress in the first place.

Watch the video below to learn about what foods are great for gut health:

Why spicy food can cause digestive distress

Manek says that she's often heard from Americans that they can't eat Indian food because the spicy food hurts their stomach, but she says that often, it isn't the herbs that are giving them digestive issues. "Restaurant Indian food not only has a lot of spices, but it can also contain a lot of oil, butter, and cream. The combination can be rich," she says. If your stomach isn't used to rich ingredients or if you have a sensitivity to dairy, it's far more likely that those ingredients are what's causing your stomach pain. The issue, Manek says, isn't the spices.

If you want to enjoy Indian food (and their many nutritional benefits) without worrying about how it will affect your digestion, she suggests cooking your own curry at home. That way, you can control how much of each ingredient is used and make a dish that isn't as rich but is still delicious. She also says you can also incorporate more cooling herbs in the dishes you cook for balance, as she already pointed out.

Zibdeh says that the reason why certain herbs and spices may cause acid reflux, heartburn, and digestive distress in people is because they're irritating their esophagus or stomach. If that's the case for you, she reiterates the importance of minimizing consumption and focusing more on herbs that won't be as irritating. Again, there's no need to force down something that doesn't agree with you.

Bottom line: Spicy food is absolutely full of health benefits. But whether it's good for your own personal gut microbiome isn't as cut and dry. This is one query that there's no universal answer for. No one knows your body better than you, so deciding how much spicy food you want to consume is truly a personal decision. Just remember, there's a lot of beneficial foods out there. Finding ones that both taste great and make you feel great is the best way to go. That way, the only side effects you'll experience will be enjoyable ones.

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