A recent article in Science Daily discussed how small changes in your diet could help you live shorter or longer and to think better.  

According to the study done at the University of Michigan, eating just one hot dog could cost you 36 minutes of healthy life, while choosing to eat a serving of nuts instead could help gain 26 minutes of extra healthy life. This study evaluated more than 5,800 foods, ranking them by their nutritional disease burden for humans and their impact on the environment. It found that substituting 10% of daily caloric intake from beef and processed meats for a mix of fruits, nuts, legumes and select seafood could allow people to gain 48 minutes of healthy minutes per day.  

The study, led by Harvard nutrition researcher Walter Willet, followed almost 50,000 men and women whose average age was 51 at the start of the study for 20 years. It revealed that eating flavonoid-rich, colorful foods such as apples; celery; red, blue and purple berries and grapes; hot and sweet peppers; eggplant; plums; carrots; citrus fruits; and even thyme and parsley can also reduce your risk for encroaching dementia by 20%.  

Flavonoids are a diverse group of phytonutrients (plant chemicals) found in almost all fruits and vegetables. Along with carotenoids, they are responsible for the vivid colors in fruits and vegetables.

Like other phytonutrients, flavonoids are powerful antioxidants with anti-inflammatory and immune system benefits. (Flavonoids include flavonols, flavones, flavanones, flavan-3 ols, anthocyanins,  and polymeric flavonoids.) Taking just  600 mg of flavonoids a day helps combat cognitive decline. (Three and a half ounces of strawberries dishes up around 180 mg; a medium apple, 113 mg.) The conclusion of the study supported a benefit of higher flavonoid intakes for maintaining cognitive function in U.S. men and women.  

Unfortunately, adults in the U.S. only get about 200-250 mg a day — just a bit above the study group with the lowest intake and greatest risk of cognition problems.

Researchers have classified foods into three color zones; green, yellow and red based on their combined nutritional and environmental performances.  The green zone represents foods that are recommended to increase in one’s diet and contains foods that are both nutritionally beneficial and have low environmental impacts.  Foods in this zone are predominantly nuts, fruits, field grown vegetables, legumes, whole grains and some seafood. (Such foods are the basis for the Mediterranean diet.)  

The red zone includes foods that have either considerable nutritional or environmental impacts and should be reduced or avoided in one’s diet.  Nutritional impacts were primarily driven by processed meats, beef, pork, lamb, shrimp and greenhouse grown vegetables. The yellow zone is intermediate in terms of results.

Capsaicin

One of the beneficial foods mentioned above is hot peppers.  They contain capsaicin, the phytochemical responsible for the spiciness of this vegetable. Capsaicin’s effect on the body is quite complicated, but it primarily activates certain receptors that induce calcium influx, and is associated with increased expression of key proteins that increase metabolic rates.  

In rat studies, capsaicin-rich diets have shown favorable effects on atherosclerosis, metabolic syndrome, diabetes, obesity, non-alcoholic fatty liver, cardiac disease (angina),  stroke risk and high blood pressure. The latter property is likely due to the effect capsaicin has on inhibiting renal sodium retention.   

Capsaicin has also been used to treat gastric ulcers, due to its effect on decreasing acid secretion, increased alkali and increased gastric blood flow. When capsaicin enters the digestive tract, it creates a chemical called anandamide.  

Anandamide has been shown to lead to less inflammation in the gut, which can be caused by conditions such as ulcerative colitis and Crohn’s disease. This same reaction that calms down your gastrointestinal tract may also keep it tumor-free. It may be particularly effective for people that are at high risk of developing intestinal tumors — such as people with a family or personal history of tumors.

People who eat red chili peppers have been shown to have lower levels of LDL (low-density lipoprotein), which is sometimes called “bad” cholesterol because it increases the risk of heart disease. Recent research found that consuming these peppers is associated with a 13% lower incidence of deaths from heart disease and stroke. Heart disease can also be caused by obesity — which capsaicin may help combat by improving appetite control. According to a new report in the Harvard Health Letter,  chili pepper in your diet could lower your risk of dying of cancer or cardiovascular disease, and could also promote longevity.

Final Thoughts

Although reports in the literature appear favorable, it may be too soon to tell everyone to start consuming peppers regularly to improve their health.  Additional research is needed to confirm that the overall impact is indeed positive.  We do know, however, that higher flavonoid intake can reduce the risk of dementia and help gain a longer life.

Max Sherman is a medical writer and pharmacist retired from the medical device industry.  His new book “Science Snippets” is available from Amazon and other book sellers. It contains a number of previously published columns.  He can be reached by email at  maxsherman339@gmail.com.