Bitter Foods for Better Digestion
Have you heard that bitter food is good for your gut? Get a list of bitter foods, and learn more about the benefits of bitter foods and why bitter foods are thought to be good for digestive health, from a registered dietitian.
Your tongue has been designed to recognize five distinctly different tastes: sweet, sour, bitter, umami and salty. It might even be able to ‘taste’ fat. Too bad we consistently ignore the sour and bitter tastes…or we sweeten and salt them out of existence in our foods.
Not only is our hyper-obssesion with sugar, salt and fat torching our health; it may also be depriving us of some truly super foods. Think you don’t like bitter? The irony is that most beer—arguably the most popular drink Canada and the US—is inherently bitter. And chefs and bartenders go nuts for that sophisticated hit that only a bitter note can impart.
As a registered dietitian with a focus on gut health nutrition (I even wrote an entire cookbook on the topic called Good For Your Gut book), I thought it would be a great idea to introduce a few reasons why you might want to bring a bit of bitter back to your sweet life.
Bitter Foods in Chinese and Ayurvedic Medicine
Traditional Chinese Medicine and Ayurvedic food wisdom recommends a balance of tastes in our food for better health. In Ayurvedic tradition, bitter foods are thought to reduce food cravings while balancing Kapha and Pitta constitutions. In TCM, bitter foods are prized for ‘removing heat’ in the body; could that reinforce their inclusion in an anti-inflammatory diet?
Bitter Foods for Digestion
There are many root causes to bloating. So how do we address this uncomfortable state? One option could be bitter food, although we don’t have a lot of research to guide us here. Bitter foods and herbs such as gentian (the primary component of digestive bitters), rapini, radicchio, and kale are thought to stimulate the flow of digestive juices— perhaps aiding in both digestion and easing gas production. If you suffer from excessive fullness when you eat, or gas and bloating, why not try starting your meal with a spoonful of bitters or a salad of bitter greens? It certainly couldn’t hurt! Even some IBS supplements contain bitters and could definitely be worth trying out…just make sure you talk to your doc or pharmacist first if you’re on any medications.
Bitter Food and ‘Detox’
Not only do bitter roots and veggies contain fibre to help sweep waste through the digestive tract (see a list of high fibre foods here), but bitter foods also contain sulfur-based compounds which support the natural detoxification pathways in the liver. This helps the organ to do what it is meant to do: remove any potentially harmful metabolites everyday living and breathing, no weird pills or diets necessary. Ditch the ‘detoxes’…your body already knows how to detox all on its own.
Bitter Foods are Nutrient-Dense
Bitter foods are typically nutrient-dense, packing plenty of nutrition into each bite! Think beta-carotene for healthy skin; folate for a healthy nervous system; vitamin K for healthy blood clotting and phyto-chemicals that help you beat oxidative damage and inflammation. Many greens are also mineral rich; gentle cooking will help make those minerals more bioavailable to the human body.
Bitter Food List
Looking more like a warty cucumber than a cantaloupe, bitter melon is part of the fabled Okinawan diet. While human trials are virtually non-existent, in the lab, bitter melon appears to effectively reduce blood sugar. Stir-fry it or add a small amount to juice (with some sweet fruits to make it palatable).
Note: if you are on diabetes medication, be sure to talk to your doc and frequently monitor your blood sugars if you are adding bitter melon to your diet.
Arugula just might be the new kale; according to Jo Robinson, author of Eating on the Wild Side, arugula is one of the salad greens that is most like its nutrient-dense wild ancestors. Meaning we should eat way more of it!
When you are ready to kick up your bitter tolerant a notch, try rapini. This bitter green is much loved in Italian kitchens and will probably throw most North American palates for a loop—unless you call your grandmother nonna! Try it sauteed with heavy lashings of garlic, olive oil and salt. You can also squeeze a bit of lemon on it to help with the bitterness.
Eat a rainbow? So why are all of our salad leaves green? Bust out this red gem for crunch and a bitter twist in an otherwise bland salad.
You know all those dandelions you pick out of your lawn? You should be eating the greens! Well, as long as you don’t use chemicals on your lawn or have pets that use it as a litter box….or, just buy some awesome dandelion greens at the market!
Dandelion is a classic component of digestive bitters and these flavourful leaves are the perfect compliment to your salad. Or eat it gently wilted with a yummy pasta. They are rich in minerals such as calcium and iron and have prebiotic fibres that feed the good bacteria in your gut.
Turmeric is by far my fave anti-inflammatory spice; it’s a pleasantly bitter note in a dish. Resist the urge to balance it with sugar, instead, leaning on acid like lemon juice or salt to balance the flavours. If you’re looking for a good place to start, you can try my turmeric ginger and mango smoothie!
Resist the urge to over-sweeten cocoa!! Use just enough sweetener to take the edge off of the bitterness for a truly healthy hot cocoa. I always use bittersweet chocolate chips in baking and love snacking on high cocoa raw chocolate. Plus, the flavonoids in cocoa are also good for your skin.
I love cranberries. The real deal, not the sugar-soaked kind. I make my own cranberry sauce to enjoy this tart fruit that packs an anti-inflammatory punch. If you buy juice, look for the not-from-concentrate kind and add it to sparkling water as a grown-up refresher.
If you needed one more reason to love matcha, you’ve got it. All those beneficial plant compounds are bitter…which is why matcha packs a punch! Enjoy this anti-inflammatory tea straight up or with your fave plant-based milk.
Orange, lime and lemon zest are such wonderful ways to add flavour to your favourite dishes, but have you ever tried eating a bit of the whole peel? I often add a piece of whole lemon or lime to my smoothies, which give it a mildly bitter zing that perks the whole damn thing up. It also makes green smoothies WAY more delicious. The peel has more anti-inflammatory bioflavonoids than the rest of the fruit.
Don’t fear bitter! Enjoy bitter foods for a more balanced palette…and healthier body!