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Chili peppers may fire up weight loss

If you like your chili peppers flaming hot, you may be in for a slimming surprise.

A group of researchers at the University of Wyoming has found evidence that capsaicin, the component that gives chili peppers their heat, may help in the fight against obesity by stimulating energy-burning and turning white fat to brown fat.

Their findings, based on a study in mice, are being presented this week at the annual meeting of the Biophysical Society in Baltimore.

So what is brown fat, and why do you want it?

"In our bodies, white fat cells store energy and brown fat cells serve as thermogenic (heat produced by burning fat) machinery to burn stored fat. Eating calorie-rich food and a lack of physical activity cause an imbalance in metabolism that leads to obesity," explained Vivek Krishnan, a graduate student in Dr. Baskaran Thyagarajan's lab at the University of Wyoming's School of Pharmacy, which conducted the study.

Simply put, the more brown fat you have, the more calories you burn.

Once it is activated, brown fat can burn up to 300 calories in 24 hours, Labros Sidossis, a professor of internal medicine in the division of geriatric medicine at the University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston, told CBS News.

And that's not all. Studies show brown fat may improve insulin sensitivity while also helping to control blood sugar and lowering your risk of diabetes and obesity.

The current worldwide epidemic of obesity -- nearly one third of the world's population is obese, according to the World Health Organization -- inspired the laboratory at the University of Wyoming to pursue a strategy for obesity management that would not involve people having to rely on willpower and restricted their diets.

Enter capsaicin. Through trials with mice, the laboratory found that a relatively low percentage (.01) of capsaicin in the total high-fat diet prevented weight gain.

The lab theorizes that dietary capsaicin "induces 'browning' of white fat and stimulates thermogenesis," or energy burning.

As adults, we don't have very much of this helpful brown fat in our bodies. Deposits are limited to small areas in the neck and upper back. Previous research has shown that expanding helpful brown fat is possible through exposing ourselves to colder temperatures for a few weeks. And, now, chili peppers may be the next big thing to kick up brown fat growth.

Other benefits of chili peppers are being investigated; some think they might even fight cancer.

Dr. Michael Freeman, director of the Cancer Biology Program at the Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, told CBS News, "Cancer cells can be induced to activate a suicide program biochemically by certain sorts of molecular processes. And capsaicin is known to bind to a protein on the membrane of certain cells, and in response to this binding, the tumor cell responds by killing itself."

Meanwhile the University of Wyoming lab is focused on developing a natural dietary supplement from capsaicin as a strategy to combat obesity.

The researchers hope to create a "novel dietary supplement-based approach to prevent and treat one of the life-threatening diseases, obesity and its associated complications -- in humans."

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