Imagine if you could eat something that would help your liver, act as a gentle diuretic to purify your blood, cleanse your system, assist in weight reduction; cleanse your skin, eliminate acne, improve your bowel function, prevent or lower high blood pressure, prevent anemia, lower your serum cholesterol by as much as half, eliminate or drastically reduce acid indigestion and gas buildup by cutting the heaviness of fatty foods, and, at the same time, have no negative side effects and selectively act on only what ails you.
If I also told you that this wonder food also tasted good in salads, teas, and soups, what would you do to get your hands on this treasure? Well, thankfully you have nature at on your side, providing these miracle plants in abundance during spring!
I'm talking about bitter greens. Dark and leafy, some great examples include dandelion, arugula, and kale. In addition to being vitamin-rich (like most greens), bitter greens are exceptionally beneficial for digestion. They have a bold flavor that may take some getting used to, but the health benefits are definitely worth the effort!
Certain flavors can affect health – we know that the obesity epidemic in the United States likely owes a lot to our national taste for sweets. All those sweet sodas, cookies and candy cause blood sugar, insulin, and hunger to spike and then dip – often leading, in genetically susceptible people, to obesity and type 2 diabetes
We would be better off eating fewer sweets and more bitter foods, which can have the opposite effect, moderating both hunger and blood sugar. Unfortunately, the two most common bitter ingredients in the American diet – coffee and chocolate – are usually heavily sweetened before serving.
The third popular bitter food in this country is beer, which does have some health benefits that appear to stem from a flavonoid in hops called xanthohumol that may also have antiviral, anti-allergic, anti-clotting, anti-inflammatory, and anti-tumor activity. I wouldn’t call beer a health food – the alcohol it contains can damage health when you get too much of it, and it is also is high in calories – but it is likely harmless, and perhaps healthful in limited ways, when consumed in moderation.
We have evolved to find bitter flavor off-putting because bitterness is sometimes a marker for toxicity. However, many nutrient-dense, healthful foods such as Brussels sprouts and leafy green vegetables have a measure of bitterness. The fact that a bitter flavor can activate caution in our species has an upside – it may help dampen appetite. Europeans sip bitter aperitifs before a meal, not a bad idea if you want to lose weight.
Bitter foods also affect health in that they stimulate the liver to produce bile, which is an important part of optimal digestion. Bile emulsifies fats and renders nutrients – especially fat-soluble ones such as vitamins A, D, E and K – more available.
Research has shown that up to 25 percent of the population cannot detect certain bitter flavors, 25 percent can detect exceedingly small quantities and everyone else falls between these two extremes.
You can boost your bitter intake by including radicchio, Belgian endive, and broccoli rabe in your diet. Here are other sources I recommend:
- Bitter tonics: Aside from the well-known Angostura bitters, a proprietary product bottled in Trinidad and Tobago, many small, artisan bitters are now available via the Internet, most are made with extracts of the bitter, nontoxic root of the great yellow gentian, Gentiana lutea, in an alcohol base. While typically added to cocktails, bitter tonics can also be added to nonalcoholic drinks or even taken via mouth spray.
- Bitter melon, Momordica charantia: Widely available at Asian-themed supermarkets and also easy to grow from seeds, this traditional Okinawa favorite may help explain why Okinawans have the world’s longest lifespans. (It is greatly enjoyed in China and India, as well.) Start with the milder Chinese variety, then “graduate” to the more intensely bitter Indian version.
- Dandelion greens, genus Taraxacum, multiple species: There are few healthier habits than regularly eating dandelion greens, which combine the benefits of strong but appealing bitter flavor with extraordinary nutrient density, similar to that of kale. The greens are available in natural foods stores, or pick them from your yard – after making sure no pesticides or herbicides have been sprayed on them and no dogs have visited the area
- Here are the top health benefits of eating your bitter greens:
1. They're a nutritional powerhouse.
Bitter greens are packed with vitamins A, C and K, and minerals like calcium, potassium and magnesium. Filled with folate and fiber, and low in fat and sodium, these greens are a nutritional powerhouse! They promote great skin (beta-carotene), a strong nervous system (folate), healthy blood clotting (vitamin K) and contain phytonutrients shown to support eye health.
2. They're digestive magic.
Eating bitter food activates taste buds that simultaneously stimulate enzyme production and bile flow, which promotes digestion. The better your food is digested, the more nutrients you'll absorb from your food. It doesn't matter what you eat, if you can't absorb it, it won't be of much benefit to you. The high fiber content in bitter greens also helps to eliminate waste through the digestive tract.
What’s more, bitter greens also promote natural detoxification of the liver, which regulates cholesterol, balances hormones, detoxifies the blood, and metabolizes fats. Considering that there is so much hype about higher fat Paleo diets, we need to eat more bitter greens to digest fats in a more efficient manner.
3. They'll balance your taste buds and reduce cravings.
Ayurveda recommends we consume all tastes for better health: sweet, salty, sour, bitter, pungent, and astringent. Unfortunately, a western diet primarily consists of sweet and salty tastes, and is lacking in others. It is to our benefit to eat foods that activate all of our taste buds and start with incorporating some seriously healthy bitter greens! It’s also been suggested that consuming bitter greens may also reduce food cravings and aid in weight loss!
So how do you incorporate these leafy greens into your diet and love the taste?
It’s surprisingly not that difficult. When shopping, choose organic greens with crisp leaves and look for greens that are in season. Collards, kale, turnip greens and mustard greens are in season from October through early spring. Swiss chard and beet greens grow from spring through fall. Dandelion greens are best in spring and summer.
Greens will keep in the refrigerator for 2 to 3 days, but it’s best to use them as soon as possible. To prepare greens for cooking, wash or “bathe” greens in a sink full of water and then remove any hard stems or stalks.
To tame bitterness, try this universal recipe: lightly sauté greens with a small amount of salt and fat. Adding sea salt and high quality oil when cooking reduces bitterness, enhances digestibility, and even releases nutrients for easy absorption.
Here is a list of bitter greens worth trying
- Broccoli Rabe
- Dandelion Greens
- Kale (including Dinosaur Kale, Lacinto Kale)
- Mustard Greens
- Turnip Greens
Pollan, Michael, “In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto,” p. 156, Penguin, 2008.
Masé, Guido,” The Wild Medicine Solution: Healing with Aromatic, Bitter and Tonic Plants,” Healing Arts Press, 2013
Noam Cohen et al, “T2R38 taste receptor polymorphisms underlie susceptibility to upper respiratory infection.” Journal of Clinical Investigation. 2012 Nov 1;122(11):4145-59. doi: 10.1172/JCI64240