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updated 5/20/2012 1:31:14 PM ET 2012-05-20T17:31:14

Hitting the gym is a great way to keep your heart healthy. But what about breaking a sweat during dinner?

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Eating spicy foods may protect your heart against disease, according to new research presented at a recent meeting of the American Chemical Society. Scientists from the Chinese University of Hong Kong studied the effects of capsaicinoids, a compound that gives chili peppers, jalapenos, and cayenne peppers their kick, on hamsters.

Researchers fed the hamsters high-cholesterol diets, giving one group spicy foods, and the other capsaicinoid-free meals. The hamsters that munched on spicy foods had lower levels of LDL or "bad" cholesterol compared to their capsaicinoid-free counterparts. The spicy compound also blocked the action of the gene responsible for causing arteries to contract. That means the muscles were more relaxed and blood could flow more easily to the heart in the hamsters that were fed capsaicinoids. (Wondering what other foods lower LDL? Check out the best and worst foods for your cholesterol.)

Related: Understanding Cholesterol and Heart Disease

Should you turn up the heat in the kitchen? Sure, you can add some extra spice to a meal. Previous research has found capsaicinoids may help treat pain associated with arthritis and psoriasis, too. (Good news: Like you needed another reason to drink a Bloody Mary, it also contains the capsaicinoid cayenne.)

Fair warning, though, fire breather: Don't go overboard with the spice. Researchers still need to conduct more studies to find out if these heart-healthy benefits translate to humans as well. Plus, too much spice can cause tissue inflammation and cause your stomach to excrete excess digestive acid. "Spicy foods can make ulcers and reflux disease worse," says Alexandra Caspero, R.D., owner of weight-management and sports-nutrition service Delicious-Knowledge.com. "They aren't recommended for patients with these conditions."

If you don't like spicy foods, there are other ways to incorporate the active component in chili peppers to your meals. "Some capsaicin is present in milder peppers like Spanish pimentos, sweet bell peppers, and cherry peppers," says Caspero. "There are also very small amounts in oregano and cinnamon."

Related: What's Your Heart Attack Factor?

More Links:
The Most Neglected Health Test for Men
The Surprising New Secret to Heart Health
A Shocking New Way to Kill Cancer
Two Heart Meds--Similar Results

© 2012 Rodale Inc. All rights reserved.

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