a person with bright red lipstick biting a red chili pepper

Spicy food cravings: What do they mean?

Sometimes your body and brain just scream for something spicy — fiery enchiladas, flaming curry, or hot sauce-doused anything. But what does it mean when you have an intense craving for spicy food? We dug into the research to help you understand what your body and brain tell you when you crave something spicy.

What is a spicy food craving?

When we talk about “cravings”, we’re referring to a strong desire for food with specific characteristics — in this case, spicy. We are not equating a craving for spicy foods to the type of craving you may experience if you are addicted to drugs or alcohol. You may love spicy food and like to eat it regularly, but again, we don’t equate a “spicy food addiction” to be the same as an addiction to drugs and alcohol because, clinically, addictions are characterized by behaviors that are harmful. Similarly, spicy food cravings are intense feelings, but they do not drive you to do things that are harmful to you.

Despite this, a craving for spicy foods can still be a signal from your body.

People who eat more spicy food crave more spicy food

Research shows that people who eat spicy food crave spicy food. Specifically, people who live in China, India, and other places where spice is integral to the cultural cuisine are more likely to crave spicy food, whereas people from the US, where cultural cuisine is less spicy, are more likely to crave sweet foods (Nandi et al. 2021).

We don’t necessarily know that this is true on a person-by-person basis, but we might assume that if your diet regularly consists of chili peppers or things derived from chili peppers, you might crave spicy food more often than people who don’t regularly eat spicy food.

Pictures of spicy food can increase brain activation

Similarly to drug addiction, when people who crave spicy food were shown photos of foods with visible chili peppers, researchers saw an increase in brain activity. The parts of the brain that showed activity included the bilateral insula, left putamen and dorsal anterior cingulate cortex, right inferior parietal lobule and lingual gyrus bilateral cuneus, left precuneus, left fusiform gyrus, and right precentral gyrus. People who did not crave spicy food did not show the same increased activity in those parts of the brain when they were shown the same photos (Zhou et al. 2019).

Premenstrual Syndrome may cause spicy food cravings

Premenstrual Syndrome is known to cause a variety of food cravings, including sweet, fatty, spicy, and more. According to one study, 10.9% of respondents with premenstrual food cravings reported a craving for spicy food (Abdullah et al. 2021).

Craving spicy food is not a sign of premenstrual depression

People who menstruate often notice food cravings around their premenstrual time, however, it’s not a sign of premenstrual depression. One study looking into different food cravings and premenstrual depression found that there was no association between spicy food cravings and premenstrual depression (Smith & Saunder, 1969).

Spicy food cravings don’t indicate general inhibitory control issues

A study from China showed that people who crave spicy foods might have poor ability in inhibiting responses to spicy food cues, but it further found that spicy food cravings don’t indicate problems with general inhibitory control (Liu, 2020). This is an important finding because inhibitory control is closely related to public health issues like overeating and drug addiction.

Claims about spicy food cravings that are not validated by research

You may have found this article by typing “why am I craving spicy food” or “spicy food craving” into Google search. We think it is important to note some of the inaccuracies of other top articles that rank in Google, such as the article from Healthline about spicy food cravings.

Healthline claims that spicy food cravings can happen because you’re overheated, depressed, or congested. We’ve reviewed the body of academic literature and find these claims to be inappropriate based on the available evidence. While it is true that our body may have a thermoregulatory reaction to capsaicin (Szolcsányi, 2015) — ie, eating something spicy helps us cool our body down — there is no research that indicates that being overheated makes us crave spicy food.

Similarly, we know that capsaicin can give a sensation of pleasure and trigger endorphins, but there is no evidence that depression causes spicy food cravings, nor that spicy food cravings might be a sign of depression. And finally we know that capsaicin (found in peppers) might improve some nasal symptoms like congestion (Gevorgyan et al. 2015), but there is no research that indicates that a spicy food craving indicates that you are congested. While it is possible that these relationships exist, it is inappropriate and inaccurate to make those sorts of assumptions based on the existing body of research.

Do spicy food cravings during pregnancy indicate the sex of the baby?

Many pregnant people wonder if spicy foods during pregnancy mean that they are more likely to have a girl or a boy. The internet seems to think that it indicates their baby will be a boy — but this isn’t backed by reliable research.

A survey by Gurgle.com of 2,231 pregnant people from 2008 reportedly found that people who craved spicy food were more likely to be carrying a boy, but the quality of the research is not great enough to provide real insights into your health or make health or medical-related decisions from. Spicy food cravings during pregnancy are more likely to be due to a past personal or cultural history of eating spicy foods.

References

  1. Abdullah, N. F., Hamirudin, A. H., Sidek, S., & Hassan, N. A. A. M. (2021). Food Craving and Symptoms of Premenstrual Syndrome among University Students . Malaysian Journal of Medicine and Health Sciences, 17(2), 189–196. Retrieved September 30, 2022, from http://irep.iium.edu.my/89480/1/89480_Food%20craving%20and%20symptoms%20of%20premenstrual.pdf.
  2. Gevorgyan, A., Segboer, C., Gorissen, R., van Drunen, C. M., & Fokkens, W. (2015). Capsaicin for non-allergic rhinitis. The Cochrane database of systematic reviews, (7), CD010591. https://doi.org/10.1002/14651858.CD010591.pub2
  3. Liu, Y. (2020). Inhibitory control in spicy food cravers:A behavioral and ERP study. Journal Of Psychological Science, (1), 150–157. http://www.psysci.org/EN/abstract/abstract10497.shtml
  4. Nandi, J., Sahu, D., & Sabharwal, P. K. (2021). The Phenemenology of Food Craving: A Survey. International Journal of Multidisciplinary Educational Research, 10(8). https://doi.org/http://ijmer.s3.amazonaws.com/pdf/volume10/volume10-issue8(5)/8.pdf
  5. Smith, S. L., & Sauder, C. (1969). Food Cravings, Depression, and Premenstrual Problems. Psychosomatic Medicine, XXXI(4). https://citeseerx.ist.psu.edu/viewdoc/download?doi=10.1.1.494.6627&rep=rep1&type=pdf
  6. Szolcsányi J. (2015). Effect of capsaicin on thermoregulation: an update with new aspects. Temperature (Austin, Tex.)2(2), 277–296. https://doi.org/10.1080/23328940.2015.1048928
  7. Zhou, Y., Gao, X., Small, D. M., & Chen, H. (2019). Extreme spicy food cravers displayed increased brain activity in response to pictures of foods containing chili peppers: An fmri study. Appetite, 142, 104379. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.appet.2019.104379

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