Hint: popsicles didn't make this list.
When the outdoor temperatures soar, it can feel like your internal body temp does, too. You become sluggish, sweaty, and maybe a bit cranky. You might look for relief in the form of air conditioning, a dip in the pool, or with cold drinks and ice pops.
But while icy treats can make you feel cool in the moment, your body goes to work at first bite to counter the freeze and warm you up. It’s what scientists call thermoregulation, and it’s how our bodies maintain that pleasant 98.6°F.
In contrast, spicy foods such as hot peppers (as well as warm beverages) help cool your body by slightly raising your internal temp. Once again, your body goes to work, this time making you sweat in an effort to release some of that heat. And you’ll actually cool down more efficiently if you’re in a drier climate, or in a breezy location, as the sweat can better evaporate from your skin. (Sorry, humidity dwellers.)
Before you scoff, think globally. Some of the world’s spiciest cuisines are eaten in the hottest places: India and Southeast Asia, northern and western Africa, the American Southwest, Mexico, and the Caribbean. Give it a try for yourself with any of these recipes, or add some spice to your favorite dishes with these suggestions:
- Red or green chile peppers, whether fresh, smoked, or dried: Thai bird, habanero, Scotch bonnet, serrano, guajillo, chiles de arbol, jalapeno or it’s smoked counterpart, chipotle
- Chile pastes and sauces: buffalo, sriracha and other hot sauces, sambal oelek (ground fresh chile paste), Thai curry paste (green tends to be hottest), piri piri, gochujang (Korean chile sauce), Thai-style sweet chili sauce, harissa
- Spices: red pepper flakes, cracked black pepper, cayenne pepper, Jamaican jerk seasoning, Cajun and Creole seasonings, Baharat, Madras curry powder, berbere, ginger, cloves
- Foods: chorizo, hot Italian poultry sausage, andouille, kimchi, fresh garlic or ginger
If spicy food isn’t your thing, there’s another way to beat the heat: Astringent foods and beverages—think those puckering ones that kick your salivary glands into overdrive—may also help. These items contain an astringent compound called tannins, which have a drying effect on the cells they come in contact with. The sensation actually follows the same nerve pathway that spicy foods do.
Try adding any of these into your hot-weather meals for their astringent properties: Red wine, balsamic, and red wine vinegars, black tea, red beans, chocolate and cocoa powder, pecans and walnuts, slightly underripe fruit, açai and other berries, cranberries, pomegranates, and rhubarb.
Now let’s talk hydration. Remember that sweating helps your body cool down. If there’s not enough water in your body to produce sweat (ON TOP OF all the other amazing, vital things water does), you can heat up and become further dehydrated.
Our bodies, on average, are composed of about 60% water. Adults need 2 to 3 liters of water per day of normal activity to maintain a healthy level of hydration. Obviously, drinking water is a great way to stay hydrated, but you also can keep your fluid levels up by eating water-containing foods such as pineapple, oranges, peaches, nectarines, melons, cucumbers, tomatoes, celery, soups, and yogurt. Not only are they hydrating, but they’re also refreshing. This means a lot of salads in your future.
And what about those sports drinks? While you do lose salt, potassium, and other electrolytes in your sweat, most people don’t need a special drink to replace them. Not only are they often loaded with sugar, but they're not cheap.
Still, electrolytes do have a hand in how water flows in and out of our cells. To help rehydration, try foods high in potassium (pumpkin, squash, sweet potatoes, beans, spinach, beets, watermelon, and bananas), calcium (figs, leafy greens, broccoli, sardines and salmon with bones, oranges, dairy), and magnesium (dark chocolate, avocados, nuts and seeds, legumes and whole grains). Smoothie bowl, anyone?
Whatever your preferred method of staying cool this summer, try incorporating some of these foods into your mealtime mix. You just may notice a difference in how easily you tolerate the heat—in and out of the kitchen.