We use herbs and spices to garnish and add flavour to our food. Just a teaspoon of a freshly ground spice and a sprinkling of an herb can make the most straightforward dish a delight. If you can add flavour to healthy food, you can turn around your diet, eat right and even enjoy yourself in the process. For those who are just getting into cooking, experimenting with spices is a good way to understand flavour profiles. Studies have shown that people who cook their own food are likely to be healthier - mostly because the ingredients are fresh and all the harmful additives in processed foods are avoided. 

Read more about spices

Hot spices are used for all sorts of home remedies - they are known to soothe sore throats, help the body get rid of phlegm and even assist in bowel movements. But can spices play an even bigger role in our health? There is growing evidence to suggest that some spices can help us reduce weight. This is explained in part by the fact that spices may add some heaviness to our food - you might feel more full after eating food laced with spices. 

Read more: How to lose weight

Other research suggests that certain spices have anti-inflammatory properties. Our understanding of obesity has grown more sophisticated - it is not simply understood as caloric excess anymore. Studies have shown that inflammation can trigger hormonal changes in the body that influence the way fat accumulates in the body. Inflammation can also alter the composition of good gut bacteria, and this imbalance can cause us to gain weight. 

Read more: Probiotics

Since some spices have anti-inflammatory properties, they can in theory help us lose weight. Animal studies have shown proof of concept - rats with altered diets have shown promise in weight loss, and we know that certain types of inflammation are increased in people suffering from conditions that are worsened by obesity. Having said that, there is a dearth of long-term human studies looking at the matter, so more research needs to be conducted to make any weight loss claims with authority. Also, note that the studies that have been conducted have focused on key ingredients within spices in large doses - larger than what we get from consuming spices with our food. 

The following is a list of spices that may have some promise when it comes to weight loss:

  1. Turmeric
  2. Red chili
  3. Ginger
  4. Black Pepper
  5. Cinnamon
  6. Fenugreek

Turmeric has received a lot of attention because it contains curcumin which has been associated with many health benefits. Studies have shown that it directly interacts with adipocytes (fat cells), pancreatic cells, liver cells, macrophages and muscle cells. It acts by suppressing proinflammatory factors (long winded processes that cause an increase in inflammation) and by amplifying cell-signaling pathways that reverse insulin resistance, hyperglycemia, hyperlipidemia and other conditions linked to obesity. In other words, curcumin may enhance bodily functions to better absorb fat and reduce overall inflammation. 

Read more: Benefits and side effects of turmeric

Separately, studies have also shown that curcumin suppresses the production of fat cells. 

Many studies in rats have shown that curcumin reduces the indicators of metabolic disease and is a strong antioxidant - both of which provide evidence for its utility in losing weight. For example, various studies have shown that dietary turmeric reduced LDL cholesterol, phospholipids and triglycerides in diabetic rats. 

Preliminary research has been conducted in humans as well. In one study, eight humans were administered 10mg of curcumin everyday for 30 days. According to the results, there was a decrease in LDL (bad cholesterol) and increase in HDL (good cholesterol).

Read more: High cholesterol

As can be seen, the study was small - more research needs to be conducted to better understand the links in humans.

The active ingredient in red chilli is capsaicin. Its properties and structure is similar to that of curcumin - it has powerful anti-oxidizing and anti-inflammatory properties. Specifically, capsaicin reduces cell signalling that is responsible for causing inflammation and also directly limits the production of fat cells. 

Read more: Inflammatory diseases

A handful of small human studies provide evidence for the role of capsaicin in weight loss. A placebo controlled double blind trial in obese patients showed that those on capsaicin supplementation experienced a greater decrease in body fat in comparison to the control group. A similar 12-week study showed that taking capsaicin in higher doses was safe and also resulted in a decrease in belly fat.

The most active ingredient in ginger is gingerol. Studies involving rats suggest that it reduces the level of serum cholesterol, triglycerides, glucose, insulin and gain in body weight. It may also enhance insulin-sensitive glucose uptake, meaning that it has potential for treating diabetes - those who are diabetic are more likely to be overweight as well.

Read more: High triglycerides

Ginger also contains another active ingredient called zingerone which has anti-inflammatory properties and can also reduce the production of fat cells. 

There is also evidence to suggest that ginger increases metabolism and reduces fat absorption. A review that collated information from 14 human studies showed that ginger supplementation reduced weight and belly fat.

Read more: How to lose belly fat

There is some evidence to suggest that black pepper may have a role in weight loss because it has antioxidizing effects. The active ingredient, piperine, can also increase the bioavailability of essential minerals and other spices including turmeric. Studies in rats have also shown that it could have some capabilities in reducing the severity of diabetes - but it appears to be less effective than ginger and turmeric. 

There is a shortage of human studies that look at the effects of black pepper on weight loss, so more research needs to be done to make bigger health claims.

Cinnamaldehyde is one of the active compounds present in cinnamon. There is solid evidence from rat studies that cinnamaldehyde has antidiabetic properties and can be used to reduce the symptoms of metabolic syndrome and therefore target weight loss. Specifically, cinnamaldehyde can improve insulin resistance and reduce fasting sugar and LDL cholesterol. 

There have been many human studies on the links between cinnamon and obesity. Overall, they have shown that cinnamon modulated the levels of various biomarkers linked with insulin resistance and obesity favourably. Other studies have also shown reduced postprandial (post meal) blood glucose and a greater feeling of satiety after consuming cinnamon.

Read more: Insulin and blood sugar (glucose) tests

There is evidence to suggest that fenugreek inhibits the accumulation of fat in the body, and reduces triglycerides and LDL cholesterol. A study in mice showed that a diet consisting of fenugreek leaves resulted in a decrease in body weight as well.

Fenugreek may also indirectly help with weight loss as it can suppress appetite and leave one with a feeling of fullness. A handful of small, uncontrolled studies have shown that supplementation with fenugreek can reduce daily fat intake by around 15%. However, more studies need to conducted to understand the relationship in more detail.

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References

  1. Bharat Aggarwal, et al. Molecular Targets of Nutraceuticals Derived from Dietary Spices: Potential Role in Suppression of Inflammation and Tumorigenesis Exp Biol Med (Maywood). 2009 Aug; 234(8): 825–849.
  2. Bharat Aggarwal, et al. Targeting Inflammation-Induced Obesity and Metabolic Diseases by Curcumin and Other Nutraceuticals Annu Rev Nutr. 2010 Aug 21; 30: 173–199. PMID: 20420526
  3. Peter G Bradford. Curcumin and Obesity Biofactors . Jan-Feb 2013;39(1):78-87. PMID: 23339049
  4. Manisha Bhutani, et al. Capsaicin Is a Novel Blocker of Constitutive and interleukin-6-inducible STAT3 Activation Clin Cancer Res . 2007 May 15;13(10):3024-32. PMID: 17505005
  5. Keizo Sekiya, et al. Enhancement of Insulin Sensitivity in Adipocytes by Ginger Biofactors . 2004;22(1-4):153-6. PMID: 15630272
  6. Srinivasan. Black Pepper and Its Pungent Principle-Piperine: A Review of Diverse Physiological Effects Crit Rev Food Sci Nutr . 2007;47(8):735-48. PMID: 17987447
  7. P Babu, et al. Cinnamaldehyde--a Potential Antidiabetic Agent Phytomedicine . 2007 Jan;14(1):15-22. PMID: 17140783
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