Bitter is a flavor that is often overlooked in the kitchen and culinary world. While most people tend to have a pretty strong preference when it comes to salty vs. sweet, few find themselves itching for a bitter snack or side dish when the cravings start to strike.
However, bitter foods — also known as “bitters” — have long been embraced across many different cultures for their healing and health-promoting properties. In fact, bitter foods such as roots and greens have historically been brewed into tonics and used as digestive aids to provide relief after indulging in a big meal. And in recent years, research has slowly started to confirm the digestion-boosting benefits of bitters, plus a wide variety of other ways that they can impact your health.
Here’s what you need to know about bitter foods, plus why you may want to start bringing more bitter into your daily diet.
Benefits of Bitter Foods
Studies show that bitters can aid in digestion by stimulating the secretion of saliva, gastric juice and bile, all of which are essential to facilitating the digestion process. Bitters may also increase the production of digestive enzymes, which are essential to maximizing the absorption of nutrients in the gut. (1)
Not only does ramping up the production of digestive enzymes help prevent nutrient malabsorption and deficiencies, but it may also prevent serious conditions like leaky gut. Leaky gut syndrome is a condition caused by an impairment in intestinal permeability, which allows bacteria and toxins to flow from the digestive tract into the bloodstream. This can have far-reaching effects on nearly every aspect of health, with side effects ranging increased inflammation to chronic fatigue and beyond.
Several factors can contribute to leaky gut, but poor gut health and nutritional deficiencies are among the most common. When coupled with a healthy lifestyle and nutritious diet, however, enjoying a few servings of bitter foods each week can provide digestive support and effectively preserve intestinal permeability.
Most bitter foods are also rich in prebiotics, which are a type of fiber that are used to feed the beneficial bacteria in the gut. These microorganisms impact just about every facet of health, with studies showing that boosting the concentrations of beneficial bacteria in your microbiome can help improve mental health, lower cholesterol levels and even promote sustainable weight loss. (2, 3, 4)
Plus, some recent research suggests that bitter foods could help sharpen the appetite as well. Although the exact mechanisms are unclear, one review noted that this may be caused by improved circulation in the abdominal organs or increased stimulation of the nerves that control taste. (1)
What’s more, other research shows that activating the bitter taste receptors could increase levels of ghrelin, the hormone responsible for signaling hunger. (5)
Bitter Foods: Examples of What to Eat
Although there are plenty of bottled bitters supplements on the market, it’s always best to get your fix through whole food sources instead. Not only do these foods supply a wider range of important antioxidants and micronutrients, but they’re often more bioavailable and easier for your body to absorb.
The best sources of bitter foods are certain vegetables, leafy greens, citrus fruits and herbs, all of which pack a powerful punch in terms of both nutrition and health benefits. Enjoy these tasty foods as an appetite-stimulating accompaniment alongside a nutritious meal to help promote proper digestion and optimize overall health.
Here are 15 of the best bitter foods that you can add to your diet:
How to Enjoy Bitter Foods
Not only are bitter foods jam-packed with important vitamins and minerals, but they’re also associated with a wide array of potent health benefits. In fact, studies show that just a few servings per week can help bump up your appetite, support digestive health and preserve the delicate balance of your gut microbiome.
Keep in mind that more is not always better, especially when it comes to bitter veggies like Brussels sprouts and kale. Going overboard can even do more harm than good when it comes to digestion, turning up unpleasant symptoms like gas, bloating and diarrhea. Stick to a few servings per week and scale back if you start to notice any negative side effects.
Ready to get started? There are countless ways to take advantage of the unique benefits that bitter foods have to offer. Try roasting some veggies or whipping up a kale salad as a satisfying side dish, adding a few servings into your morning smoothie or enjoying some citrus fruit paired with dark chocolate for a deliciously bitter dessert.