Fighting obesity with hot peppers and olive oil

4300675933_10191fce16_bDespite the burgeoning obesity epidemic we face, weight loss studies are generally a dime a dozen and not worth paying a much attention to. As a former consumer health-advocate and endocrinologist Marvin Lipman MD once said, “Diets come in two sizes: Portion size and exercise.” A play on words of course, but the point is that weight loss is about eating fewer calories than you burn, weight gain is about the opposite. Weight loss or gain, and by extension obesity, is a numbers game.

But two new weight loss studies out this week, in two very different populations, are intriguing, and may offer some help in our efforts to slim down. The first study looked at women who were breast cancer survivors. In addition to the normal risks of weight gain, this population faces increased cancer-recurrence rate from added pounds. Women were separated into groups and given two different 1500-caloire per day diets to follow: A standard low fat National Cancer Institute recommended diet, and a higher fat diet that included copious amounts of plant oils, including at least three tablespoons of extra virgin olive oil daily, and fat-laden nuts (loosely based on the Mediterranean diet.) In many other ways the two diets were similar: Lots of whole grains, veggies and fruits, a little lean meat, no red meat. After 8 weeks, 80 percent of the women on the higher fat diet had lost over 5% of their body weight, compared to 31% on the low-fat diet. Blood tests also found that they lowered levels of artery clogging triglyceride, and raised “good” cholesterol (HDL) levels, both steps decrease cancer risk (and increasing their levels increases cancer risk). After 8 weeks women were given the choice of which diet to follow, and they overwhelming chose the higher fat, more flavorful and filling, and more affordable oil-and-nut-rich diet. This was a small study of only 44 women, but packs a potent message. One of the hardest health behaviors to change is portion size and diet quality. If obese folks are given guidance that includes better tasting and more filling choices, perhaps they’d be more likely to shed pounds long term.

A second study in rats explores the fascinating potential for hot peppers to combat obesity. Researchers fed two groups of rats two identical high fat diets, but supplemented one groups’ meals with capsaicin, the stuff that gives hot peppers their spicy kick. The critters that ate the kicked-up rat chow gained 8% less weight than those that ate the bland fare. Though no one knows exactly how it happens, it appears that capsaicin may decrease calorie intake, shrink fat tissue, and lower blood levels of fat.

While these findings certainly don’t mean that spicy olive oil is the cure for the obesity epidemic, they certainly add more good reasons to serve up sensible portions of those foods as part of a healthy diet.

Photo credit: The author