Bitter foods can be hard to swallow (literally!) for some, as their strong flavors can overpower sweet, salty or umami notes of an otherwise tasty dish. But those who make it their mission to skillfully incorporate more bitter flavors into their diet are enjoying a rich payoff when it comes to gut health, says Amy Fischer, MS, RD, CDN, a registered dietitian within the Good Housekeeping Institute.
The surprising truth about bitter foods is that they contain plant-based chemicals that can streamline how your body reacts to nutritious meals, an added bonus to the fact that most bitter foods are entirely nutritious on their own. “Bitters — and bitter-tasting herbs and foods — have been used for millennia as a digestive aid,” Fischer adds. “In a nutshell, bitter foods increase saliva production and start the digestion process because of their bitter flavor.”
Which kinds of foods can you consider bitter, you may wonder? They may already be grocery staples you know and love — think things like a daily cup of coffee, fresh cranberries, crunchy kale in your favorite salad. Foods and beverages like these contain bitter elements that stimulate your mouth’s taste buds, which in turn activate saliva production when you’re eating. From there, Fischer says that excess saliva triggers gastric acid to aid in immediate digestion, later stimulating bile flow in your gut.
“Stomach acid is a good thing, and you need enough to help digest food that you eat. Therefore, incorporating bitter foods into your diet can help with bowel regularity and constipation, because these foods help to keep food moving through the digestive tract,” Fischer adds.
If you’re noticing that you’re having irregularity, or are experiencing issues with bloating or constipation frequently, slowly ramping up how frequently you eat these bitter nutrition powerhouses below may help you achieve normalcy when it comes to digestion. Remember: Bitter foods won’t fix an irregular gut overnight, no matter how much you eat, so be sure to slowly incorporate the following into your diet to avoid gas or acid reflux, Fischer says.
Looking to streamline digestive health with the help of healthy bitter flavors? All of the following ingredients can be incorporated into your favorite recipes, aiding digestion while bringing their unique nutritional benefits into the mix as well.
Maybe you’re missing it beneath a generous drizzle of delicious salad dressing, but kale does qualify as a bitter flavor profile that promotes digestion — alongside the fact that it’s a fiber powerhouse, which helps you stay regular. Kale is loaded with nutrients and antioxidants, particularly vitamins A and K as well as calcium and potassium. It contains plant-based glucosinolates, a group of sulfur-containing compounds that help to better regulate your liver health, Fischer says.
“Kale contains prebiotics that promote good gut health, as it helps to increase the amount of good gut bacteria, helping with digestion,” she adds. “Kale works to reduce bad cholesterol, known as LDL, by binding to extra circulating cholesterol in your system and carrying it out through elimination.”
A close relative to kale, peppery arugula is chock full of vitamins, minerals and antioxidants, and also works to add more fiber into a diet. In similarity to Brussels sprouts and broccoli rabe, arugula’s bitter flavor profile comes from glucosinolates, which is responsible for a suite of vegetables’ bitter taste. While glucosinolates may deter animals and pests from munching on plants in the wild — “Glucosinolates provide plants with protection against bugs, as they act as a natural pesticide,” Fischer explains — you shouldn’t be wary of arugula yourself. The strong, bitter flavors from these compounds kick your taste buds into gear, which helps promote digestion.
3) Broccoli Rabe
A cruciferous pick that’s part of the brassica family, Fischer points to broccoli rabe as one of the richest sources of vitamins A, C and K on this list. It may also equally be one of the most bitter and offensive to sensitive palates, which is why many of the tastiest broccoli rabe recipes call for lemon or citrus to break away from bitter flavors. “Lemon can also aid in the absorption of iron in broccoli rabe,” she adds. “Vitamins A&K are fat-soluble, so you’ll want to enjoy this with a generous serving of healthy fats.”
Alongside other produce in the chicory family (think Belgian endives, escarole and other fall favorites), radicchio carries many nutritious qualities despite its overtly bitter flavor. Home cooks often use radicchio to add an earthy touch to protein-heavy dishes and sautes, or as a salad base to pair nicely with fresh citrus and other zesty seasonings. “Radicchio is rich in fiber, zinc and the fat-soluble vitamin K, so you’ll want to enjoy it with a healthy fat, like olive oil,” Fischer says. “Fiber also helps to keep blood sugar more stable and it keeps you feeling fuller longer, which is helpful with weight management.”
5) Brussels Sprouts
Another vegetable loaded with glucosinolates, Brussels sprouts hold a significant amount of naturally occurring potassium in each bite, alongside Vitamins B and C. Its reputation may be worse among those who are averse to its strong flavor profile, but there’s a reason why parents everywhere are still harping on Brussels sprouts — their glucosinolates composition (and many others on this list) may purportedly work to lower the risk of cancer over time, though research remains divided on how or why. More research needs to be done on the cancer front, but Fischer and nutrition experts everywhere remain certain this fiber-packed vegetable can do wonders for your gut over time.
6) Dandelion Greens
“A lot of people think of dandelion as a pesky weed, but it has beneficial properties — the leaves are bitter and contain inulin, which can help lower bad cholesterol and may help to keep blood sugar more stable,” explains Fischer. “Dandelion contains vitamins A, C, K, as well as folate, iron, calcium and potassium, which is a natural diuretic,” she adds.
Usually, dandelion greens are used in salads, spun into green juice or even processed into Dandelion tea to help with digestive issues.
Another member of the chicory family, Fischer says endives are set apart due to their inulin composition, an indigestible prebiotic fiber that occurs naturally within this crisp leaf vegetable. “Inulin can help with holistic digestion as it promotes good bacteria,” she adds. Endives also are rich in vitamin A, C and E, packing an extra punch of electrolytes found within their potassium makeup.
Citric acid is what makes a fresh grapefruit feel intensely bitter in your mouth — and when consumed in excess, can contribute to chronic irritation for those suffering from irritable bowel syndrome or heartburn. While other kinds of fresh citrus have been known to aid digestion — oranges, lemons, and limes specifically — grapefruits, in particular, have a high fiber composition and are loaded with water, Fischer says, aiding in feeling properly satiated until the next meal (hydration is key!). “It’s also a rich source of Vitamin C, which can promote collagen production; key for healthy skin, hair and nails.”
Chocolate isn’t the same as cacao, which is a component of the final product that is entirely bitter in its pure, unadulterated form — and much more redeeming for your holistic health, in addition to a digestive aid. Unsweetened cacao is chock full of magnesium, potassium, iron and zinc, as well as flavonoids, which is a form of a polyphenol that aids your body in fighting inflammation over time. In the healthiest chocolate bars, significant magnesium content has been tied to relaxation and sleep benefits as well. “Cacao is also full of antioxidants, a great source of electrolytes and minerals like magnesium, contains iron, and potassium, which is a natural diuretic,” Fischer adds.
Not to be mistaken with processed cranberry juice, which can contain lots of added sugar, this bitter fruit is likely the most popular on this list. Organic cranberries are extremely tart and get the digestion process ‘moving’ sooner rather than later. They can be added into fresh salads, marinades, or even smoothies; and regularly incorporating them into your diet may aid digestive discomfort at large.
“Studies have shown that regular consumption of sugar-free, tart cranberry juice could help to suppress H-pylori infection, a common stomach infection,” Fischer says. “And cranberry juice may help prevent stomach ulcers from developing, or at least treat symptoms in people that already have ulcers.”
If you feel like you can’t get your day started properly without a cup of coffee, you wouldn’t be the only one — coffee is bitter and tart, promoting saliva production and jumpstarting the digestion process (key at breakfast!). And research suggests that coffee may be the single greatest contributor to antioxidant intake in your diet, as it contains many chlorogenic acids, which work to prevent vision loss or blindness as you age. Plus, antioxidants can help to fight inflammation across your body. Stick to caffeinated coffee, though, as decaf coffee loses many of its antioxidants in this process, and new research suggests unfiltered coffee may lead to increased cholesterol consumption overall.
12) Apple Cider Vinegar
There isn’t a lot confirmed about apple cider vinegar, as research is divided on how this tart, bitter oily mix actually boosts health in a mechanical way. But it’s flavor profile can aid in digestion, which is why people take vinegar shots. “There’s a lot of mixed data on the health benefits of apple cider vinegar but it is acidic and sour and can aid in stimulating the salivary glands and begin the digestion process,” Fischer added.
13) Herbal Peppermint
Peppermint oil itself has been linked in research to irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), as a form of alternative treatment to alleviate digestive symptoms. The evidence, published in 2014, specifically suggested that oil (when used appropriately) can relax your digestive tract by relieving muscle contractions or spams at large. At large, evidence seems to suggest it’s a great supplement to discuss with your doctor. “A review of nine research studies found that peppermint oil is ‘safe and effective short-term treatment for IBS,'” Fischer says.
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