When you sneak to the kitchen for a midnight snack, I bet you are craving something sweet or salty. Chances are, you overlook the more bitter foods as you peruse the pantry. It probably comes as no surprise to you that most people do not yearn for bitter foods, regardless of the time of day. But it might be time we start developing a taste for these neglected foods because research shows that the foods that activate the bitter taste receptors on your tongue have significant benefits. So, what even constitutes as a bitter food? Essentially, any foods that almost make your mouth want to pucker but are separate from the sour taste.
The idea that bitter foods can have positive effects on the human body is not a new one. For centuries, bitter foods in the form of roots and herbs have been brewed into tea-like concoctions to heal all sorts of ailments. In Ayurveda, for example, bitter foods have been recommended as natural diuretics as a way to limit bloating and reduce water retention. Similarly, practitioners of Traditional Chinese Medicine often use bitter foods to reduce the buildup of bodily fluids and promote heart health. But recent studies on the benefits of bitter foods go even further. Here are some ways that bitter foods have been proven to improve overall health.
There is more and more research being published that shows the positive effects that bitter foods (often called, simply, bitters) can have on the digestive tract. One of the main reasons for this is that bitter foods are known to stimulate the secretion of saliva in the mouth. Within our saliva lives salivary amylase – the first enzyme in the digestion process. The more salivary amylase we produce, the better/faster the polysaccharides (aka carbohydrates) that we eat are able to be broken down before they even reach our intestines, where the majority of digestion occurs. Eating more bitter foods may also lead to the increased production of other digestive enzymes as well. As you have probably guessed, digestive enzymes are key for, well, digestion. But what you may not know is that digestive enzymes are also a key part of nutrient absorption. Thus, eating bitter foods can be beneficial in nutrient absorption as well as food breakdown.
The intake of bitter foods has also been known to stimulate bile production. Bile is a fluid produced by the liver and is essential for breaking apart/down fats and lipids. As if that was not impressive enough, bitter foods can also enhance hydrochloric acid secretion, which is another crucial part of digestion. All of these bitters benefits can help with digestive issues like Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS) and digestion in general. I often recommend that my clients eat a small serving of a bitter food after a larger meal to ease their stomachs and prevent bloating and water retention.
Leaky Gut Prevention
Another way that bitter foods have been known to aid the intestinal tract is by preventing Leaky Gut Syndrome. With leaky gut, people experience intestinal permeability, which means that harmful substances, like bacteria and other toxins, are able to make their way through the intestinal lining and into the bloodstream. Leaky gut can lead to a variety of uncomfortable symptoms like digestive problems, fatigue, chronic inflammation, skin issues, and much more. By improving both digestion and nutrient absorption, bitter foods can do wonders for the prevention of leaky gut.
Gut Microbiome Enhancement
The gut microbiome is an incredible thing. It is the ecosystem that is thriving within your digestive tract at all times. It may be hard to imagine, but, right at this very moment, there are trillions of bacteria in your gut, and most of them are good bacteria, necessary to keep you healthy. As you likely know, probiotics are supplements you can take that are filled with billions of this healthy gut bacterium. But what many people do not yet realize is that the intestinal microflora need specific foods, called prebiotics, to thrive. Prebiotics are made up certain types of fiber that the beneficial bacteria absolutely love. Believe it or not, many bitter foods are actually made up of prebiotics.
To add to the list of substances that bitter foods signal more production of is ghrelin. Ghrelin is the primary hormone responsible for alerting us that we are hungry. Being in tune with when we are ready to eat is a key part of staying on a healthy eating schedule. In our modern, hectic society where it is all too common to eat lunch at our desks (or not at all!), our appetites are often silenced by our busy brains. But when we eat bitter foods, they help release the hunger hormone and sharpen our sense of when it is time to eat. When we eat when we are hungry, rather than pushing off our appetite until we are famished, we typically make healthier food choices and consume it in smaller amounts. And, separate from ghrelin production, a recent review indicated that eating bitter foods may also help enhance appetite by increasing blood flow in the abdominal organs and boosting the activity of certain nerves that control taste. Pretty wild, right?
The Best Bitters
I will leave you with a list of my absolute favorite bitter foods. Get creative and start experimenting with different ways to incorporate them into your diet!
Apple Cider Vinegar
If you are interested in upping your bitter foods game and want some inspiration, I highly recommend checking out my new 7-Day RESET Cleanse. Some of the recipes contain delicious ways to prepare various bitter foods. Enjoy!