Salsa: Dance it or Eat it — Both Burn Calories

A bowl of salsa next to a bowl of chiles and tortilla chips
Photo: Michele Redmond, MS, RDN

Dance it or eat it, but either way salsa boosts your mood, makes you hot and burns extra calories. Chile peppers in salsa contain chemicals that trigger heat sensations and cause your body to expend more energy — a metabolic effect called diet-induced thermogenesis (DIT). Embrace salsa as a quick condiment or ingredient to make sassier foods that give your body a metabolic boost for burning calories.

Popular in the United States as a dip, in many dishes it’s the sauce — no surprise since salsa is the Spanish word for sauce. It typically relies on savory, umami-rich tomatoes as the base, but fruits add fresh, sweet flavors that complement many dishes.

Salsa ingredients can be grilled, raw, pureed, diced or pounded out in a molcajete. The only rule to making salsa? You must include chile peppers — not spelled chili (a meaty dish).

Salsa “Burn” — Blame the Vein

Contrary to popular myth, the spicy heat from chili peppers, caused by capsaicinoids, is not concentrated in the seeds, but primarily in the inner fibrous veins, or the ribs of the peppers. Chemicals in capsaicinoids, like capsaicin, induce thermogenesis causing your body to expend more energy.

Diet-induced thermogenesis occurs when specific compounds in foods (capsaicin in chile peppers) or beverages (such catechins in green tea), help the cells convert energy into heat which burns calories. Depending on the mix of nutrients, such as carbohydrates, fats and protein consumed at meals, diet-stimulated energy expenditure can range from 5-15 percent of total energy expenditures for the day.

Consider making salsa a weekly part of your menu  by stocking up on:

Salsa base ingredients: Raw tomatoes, raw tomatillos or grilled, braised, roasted versions of either. Canned fire-roasted tomatoes can be a nice option.

Chile peppers: Serranos are my favorite choice because of the size and fruity profile they have compared to jalapeños, which tend toward grassier, bitter notes. Serranos have more capsaicin (3-4 times more) than jalapeños and both come in red and green, but serranos also are available in orange and yellow. Gauge the amount of chile peppers by taste, but also check out the Scoville levels as a guide.

Aromatic or savory ingredients: Garlic, ginger, yellow onions, red onions, sweet onions, shallots, scallions, cilantro

Sweet ingredients: Corn, pineapple, watermelon, mangos, apples, peach, strawberries, cherries, etc.

Tangy ingredients: Lime, grapefruit, lemon, vinegar, pickled veggies

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Michele Redmond
Michele Redmond, MS, RDN, a registered dietitian nutritionist and French-trained chef, specializes in culinary nutrition, taste literacy and how culture affects food enjoyment and health. She directs The Taste Workshop in Scottsdale, AZ, and leads workshops in Paris. Michele blogs at LeBlog.com. Follow her on Instagram, Facebook, Twitter and Linkedin.


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