Chili peppers
Chili peppers could potentially help fight obesity, new research indicates. Reuters/Beawiharta

Add the possibility of fighting obesity to the long list of ways people can benefit from eating chili peppers. Previous research has supported the idea that capsaicin, an ingredient found in chili peppers, can lead people to eat less. Now, researchers in Australia have discovered clues as to why.

When a person has eaten enough, the stomach sends a message to the brain saying it is full. The nerves that send the message are activated when the stomach stretches, Amanda Page, a University of Adelaide researcher and a lead author of the paper detailing the study, said in a press release this week. But the capsaicin in chili peppers can also trigger the same message that tells the brain when to stop eating.

In their study, the scientists also found that diets high in fat can impair the receptors that trigger that messaging, potentially leading people to overeat because they do not feel full. People who are overweight or obese and have a high-fat diet, therefore, may struggle to curb their consumption.

The researchers' findings contribute to a seemingly endless stream of studies into the possible causes of, as well as cures for, obesity amid a virtually global fight against increasing obesity. Australia, South Africa and countries in North America and the Middle East have some of the highest rates of obesity, with anywhere from a quarter to one-third of their populations suffering from obesity.

Expanding waistlines are one of the most pressing public health problems of the 21st century, as obesity can lead to numerous health risks such as diabetes and heart disease. As public health researchers attempt to delineate the factors that cause obesity, they find it to be a complex health issue that requires a multitude of solutions, ranging from healthier school lunches for children to more physical activity.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, for instance, cites "advertising of less healthy foods," "limited access to healthy affordable foods" and "no safe and appealing place, in many communities, to play or be active" as just a few of the reasons nearly 20 percent of children in the U.S. are obese. It also points to increasing portion sizes as another culprit.

Cooking with more chili peppers is hardly a solution to the obesity problem, but researchers suggested it could someday play a role in helping people to eat less, perhaps with capsaicin being used in therapies and medicines in the future, Stephen Kentish, another researcher at the University of Adelaide, said. He and his colleagues also plan to examine why diets high in fat can hamper crucial communications between the stomach and the brain that tell people when to stop eating, he added.