Health

Why Athletes Are Turning to Paprika for Better Performance

Experts Dish on the Fitness Benefits of Paprika

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It’s common knowledge that what you eat can have a major impact on your energy while exercising — as well as your results. But did you know that the secret to more effective workouts might be in your spice cabinet? Studies have shown that paprika has a slew of benefits for improving physical performance, which explains why so many personal trainers, registered dietitians, and exercise physiologists recommend adding it to your diet.

RELATED: What You Should Eat Before and After a Workout

“There are many tips and tricks we include in our clients’ nutrition plans to help in weight loss and athletic performance and one of these secret ingredients is paprika,” says John Gardner,  a NASM-certified personal trainer and co-founder/CEO of Kickoff. “Paprika not only has numerous health benefits but it is also great for weight loss, pain relief, and is important for building strong bones and muscles — which is extremely beneficial for athletic performance.”

According to Hillary Ake, a registered dietitian certified specialist in sports dietetics at the University of Florida, when paprika is ingested it can activate what’s known as TRP channels through sensory nerves in the mouth that connect to the brain. The sensation caused by the spiciness of paprika triggers the brain to respond by releasing pain-relieving and mood-lifting hormones. For this reason, athletes who are prone to cramps may be able to stop them by consuming paprika. In this case, the paprika activates a TRP channel in the mouth, telling the brain to release hormones that stop the hyperactive nerve activity causing the muscle spasm.

But that’s not the only reason to jump on the paprika bandwagon. Here’s what experts want you to know about the potential fitness-related benefits, as well as how to incorporate it into your diet.


Benefits of Paprika


Ana Snyder, MS, a NCSF- and NASM-certified personal trainer tells AskMen that it’s paprika’s antioxidant properties that are responsible for many of this spice’s benefits.

“Antioxidants prevent cell damage from free radicals that are produced when we work out,” she explains.

Top view of a black bowl filled with red chili pepper flakes shot on abstract brown rustic table. A wooden serving scoop with pepper flakes is beside the bowl, pepper flakes are scattered on the table.GettyImages

Brad Dieter, PhD, a NASM-certified nutrition coach adds that these antioxidant properties have been shown to improve fat metabolism (in animal studies). While there is limited evidence of this in humans, there is some emerging scientific evidence that suggests high doses of supplemental paprika can mimic the findings found in the animal studies.

Below are some of the other, more well-studied, potential perks of paprika – try saying that three times fast.


1. Better Energy Efficiency


According to registered dietitian Kristin Gillespie, MS, the carotenoids in paprika — the natural dyes in plants that give peppers their color — can enhance the efficiency with which your body uses energy during exercise. Specifically, a 2020 study found that male college athletes who ingested carotenoids improved their energy efficiency during endurance exercise (in this case it was cycling).


2. Decreased Inflammation


Inflammation can be a big issue for athletes, particularly those who train hard on a regular basis. Essentially, muscles undergo small micro-tears during intense or prolonged training that cause an acute inflammatory response, which isn’t really a problem as it’s a natural response. However, ongoing or chronic inflammation can be problematic, especially when you’re looking to train on a daily basis and can’t afford to take rest days in between every workout. That’s where paprika comes in.

“The carotenoids in paprika have antioxidant properties, which mean they can reduce inflammation in the body by exercise, and can, in turn, reduce soreness,” says Ake.


3. Weight Loss


Looking to trim down and improve your body composition? There’s a chance that paprika can help with that — specifically thanks to the capsaicin, a compound that gives peppers their kick.

A 2017 study indicated that capsaicin has multiple benefits for metabolic health and weight loss, especially in obese individuals. “Capsaicin contains appetite-suppressing properties and also improves fat metabolism,” says Gardner. “This helps clients reach their fitness goals.”

Research has found that capsaicin supplements may boost your metabolism, enabling you to burn fat more easily. They accomplish this by increasing oxygen consumption and body temperature, thus accelerating the rate at which your body torches calories.


​RELATED: Expert-Approved Hacks for Breaking Out of a Weight Loss Plateau


4. Build Muscle


According to Gardner, paprika can also help build stronger bones and muscles — which obviously aid in athletic performance, strength, and endurance — due to the potassium, calcium, and phosphorus it contains.


5. Reduced Fatigue


Ever felt super tired or lethargic after a grueling sweat session? Paprika might offer a solution. A small 2018 study found that student athletes who took a paprika supplement were able to do a treadmill workout at a higher intensity while also feeling less severe fatigue afterward than those who didn’t take the supplement.

The main reason why paprika seems to help fight fatigue, according to registered dietitian Rachel McBryan, is that it seems to improve respiration capacity. In fact, a 2020 study revealed that paprika supplementation resulted in an increase in red blood cells’ oxygen-carrying capacity which allows for a reduction in heart rate during endurance exercise.


6. Pain Relief


“Because of the capsaicin, paprika has analgesic effects, which can be used to help relieve pain and can be extremely beneficial for post-muscle pain after a heavy workout,” says Gardner.

Studies have also shown that applying topical creams with capsaicin can help to reduce pain.


7. Enhanced Vision


Whether you’re in a softball or touch football league or you like to play tennis, it goes without saying that sharp vision is crucial to playing sports.

“Paprika contains carotenoids, including zeaxanthin and lutein, that are present in both the retina of the eye and the frontal lobe of the brain, contributing significantly to visual performance,” explains Ake. “Together these two carotenoids form macular pigment, which essentially acts as a light filter or internal sunglasses for the eye. What this means for athletes is that a diet high in carotenoids can make your eyes better at absorbing visible light and reducing glare disability and photostress.”

Ake says lutein and zeaxanthin are thought to increase the speed by which visual information is processed while also decreasing the time needed to react — which can mean the difference between hitting a home run or missing the ball completely.

So, it should come as no surprise that pros in the MLB are taking supplements containing these vision-boosting nutrients.

All this being said, Dieter tells AskMen: “It’s important to consider that the research on paprika is currently still considered preliminary and the effective doses in humans have not been well established.”


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How to Incorporate Paprika Into Your Diet


There are two main ways to take advantage of paprika in your diet: either by adding it to food or by taking a supplement that contains its active ingredients. If you like the flavor of paprika, consider cooking with it as your body may be able to better reap the full spectrum of its benefits that way.

“It is always preferable to get nutrients from food sources where possible,” says Gillespie. “Paprika comes in different flavors (including sweet, hot, and smoked varieties), making it versatile — it can be easily added to savory dishes including meats, eggs, vegetables, soups, and seafood dishes. Some opt to make paprika oil, which can then be used for sauteing or cooking various food items.”

Hummus with pita chips and paprika on topGettyImages

Snyder notes that milder forms of paprika work well in pasta dishes and meats, while spicier variations incorporate nicely into stews.

McBryan suggests adding paprika to a spice blend for meat or falafel and hummus served with salad for a Meditteranean-style meal. Gardner also recommends sprinkling it onto potatoes, seasoning grilled chicken and other meat with it, or using it in a marinade for seafood. For those who struggle with cramps, Ake advises whipping up a pre- or mid-run snack by adding paprika to applesauce, a smoothie, or a shake.

If you choose this route, Dieter says the dosing in most human studies equates to about ¾ of a teaspoon of paprika.

Don’t like the flavor? There aren’t many paprika-specific supplements on the market, but there are plenty of supplements containing capsaicin, its active ingredient — such as cayenne pepper extract.

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According to Gillespie, most studies reference an intake of about 2-6 milligrams (mg) of capsaicin. She recommends taking 6 mg daily for a safe but effective dose. “As cayenne pepper contains approximately 2.5 mg of capsaicin per gram, you would need to take two to five 500-mg capsules to obtain 2 to 6 mg of capsaicin,” says Ake.

Keep in mind that the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) regulates supplements differently than medications, which means there are no standardized dosages. So, you might want to consult with your doctor and start out with a lower dose to see how your body responds and avoid any unpleasant side effects. It’s also important to buy capsaicin supplements from reputable brands. Look for a verification seal from third-party companies such as NSF International or USP.

Snyder highly recommends EyePromise, a supplement that contains zeaxanthin and lutein — two of the main antioxidants in paprika.

“The all-natural zeaxanthin in this supplement is derived straight from paprika,” she explains. “The lutein is derived from marigold flower extract, and provides similar benefits. Instead of sprinkling paprika on your foods every day, you can take one or two soft gels to meet your nutritional needs. It’s also NSF Certified for Sport, which is why so many pro and amateur athletes use it.”

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