Can Spices Help Curb Your APPETITE?

By: 
Dace L. Trence, MD, FACE

It may come as no surprise that Americans love spices. In fact, a recent U.S. Department of Agriculture report revealed that the U.S. imports and consumes more spices than any other nation. While some of this consumption can be attributed to the country’s growing ethnic population, other signs point to more globally adventurous palates and the use of spices to compensate for lower salt and fat levels in foods.

And surprisingly, some spices are associated with less food intake. Select spices not only add extra flavor and aroma to your food, they also heighten senses and can suppress hunger or make you feel full as they may stimulate release of satiety hormones.

And polyphenols present in many aromatic plants used to flavor foods hold antimicrobial effects, changing the gut bacteria or function of the bacteria in nutrient absorption. A practical example of this is the decreased energy from nut calories that result from eating nuts with skins on (typically rich in polyphenols) versus eating the nuts with skins off. Although this produces a modest difference — perhaps a 5-to-15 percent energy difference — this is still a natural approach to decreasing calorie intake.

Below are some examples of spices that may impact weight management.

Saffron

Saffron is a very expensive spice that typically is available in what looks like red pieces of thread. These threads are the stamens from Crocus sativus, a plant that grows primarily in the Mediterranean region, southwest Asia and southern California. The plant is highmaintenance, and yields have been described as “fickle.” Each flower, which blooms for one week of the year, produces about three stamens, which must be picked by hand. And 150 flowers are needed to produce a single gram of saffron, or about 80,000 flowers to make one pound — which can cost as much as $10,000!

What about its effects on appetite? It appears that this spice might decrease snacking. A randomized controlled trial in which one group had saffron added to their food, while the other did not, specifically targeted snacking, Adding saffron to the diets of 60 overweight women for eight weeks resulted in a significant decrease in snacking frequency and hunger and a trend towards lower body weight (with a mean difference of about 2.5 pounds between the two groups).

A few words of caution are in order. Beyond its cost, there are other precautions to keep in mind when using saffron. Large amounts of saffron can make the uterus contract and might cause a miscarriage, so it should not be ingested by a woman who is pregnant. And not enough is known about the safety of saffron during breast-feeding, so — again — its use should be avoided if nursing. Saffron can affect mood. It might trigger excitability and impulsive behavior (mania) in people with bipolar disorder, so avoid the spice if you have this condition. And saffron might affect how fast and how strong the heart beats, so it might worsen some heart conditions. Also, taking saffron might make blood pressure become too low in people suffering from low blood pressure. Finally, allergies to any spice can occur, so be cautious when using saffron, even in affordable amounts.

Chili peppers

Capsaicinoids are found in chili peppers. In a large review of published studies, intake of capsaicinoids was found to increase energy expenditure (or energy burn) by approximately 50 kilocalories per day. While not a large amount, this by itself could produce significant levels of weight loss over one to two years. A capsaicin-containing breakfast has been reported to significantly reduce study participants’ rating of their hunger and their desire to eat before lunch. In another study questioning feelings of fullness, increased satiety was reported after a capsaicin-rich meal. And interestingly, it has been also been reported that regular intake of chili peppers significantly reduced abdominal fatty tissue levels and reduced appetite and energy intake.

Again, a note of caution: Too much hot pepper can result in nausea, vomiting, abdominal pain, diarrhea and a burning sensation when ingested. It is one of the most foodassociated complaints received by poison centers. If you eat enough chili peppers, capsaicin can even kill you. In fact, it is so strong that it is used as a paint stripper and in pepper spray used by police forces.

Side effects can include mild heartburn, diarrhea and irritation of the mouth. Because there is a possibility that ginger may affect blood-clotting ability, if you are taking anticoagulants (blood thinners) such as warfarin (Coumadin), discuss the use of ginger with your doctor so your bleeding time can be checked. This effect is seen only with high doses of ginger and not what might be contained in your sushi tray selection, for example.

Garlic

Garlic has been used as both food and medicine for thousands of years. During both World Wars, soldiers were given garlic to prevent gangrene. Garlic was also used to prevent infection in skin wounds. Although frequently promoted as a weight-loss food, evidence of its effectiveness remains scant. In one study, it was part of a combination of several spices including chili peppers, ginger and others, so it was unclear if there was any distinct role for garlic itself being beneficial.

Unfortunately, there is no simple answer to whether a specific spice or supplemental food is clearly beneficial to weight loss. And there is sufficient data that suggests that large amounts of these substances can actually be toxic and dangerous to one’s health. While some nutrition studies suggest that making food more spicy can generally decrease appetite and perhaps help decrease food cravings, make sure you use spices in moderation when adding them to your meals.

Ginger

Ginger is a member of the same botanical family that includes cardamom and turmeric and has been valued for its aromatic, culinary and medicinal qualities for centuries among many cultures. In regard to its effectiveness as an appetite suppressant, a small study in men suggested that ginger reduced feelings of hunger and also resulted in more calorie burn. While it has been reported to decrease appetite in some studies, and has become a popular tea advertised as a weight-loss agent, it can also stimulate appetite according to other research, so results about this spice’s weight management potential are contradictory.