We salivate over sweet desserts and dig into comforting savory dishes with gusto. Meanwhile, bitter foods are usually the odd man (or, er, food) out in the culinary world. But it may be time to pursue bitter tastes as often as we reach for the nearest block of chocolate or hearty casserole. Emerging evidence suggests that bitter foods, such as apple cider vinegar, ginger and leafy greens, can be seriously good for our gut health. And most of us are a few centuries late to the game.
“For thousands of years, people have used “bitters” as digestive tonics (which typically include alcohol-based leaves, roots or flowers) to improve digestion after a large meal,” say Fresh Thyme Farmers Market Dieticians Kerry Clifford, MS, RD, LDN and Meghan Sedivy, RD, LDN. “[Far from being] ancient wives’ tales, there may be some science to support it after all.”
So how does eating bitters benefit your microbiome exactly? Here’s the un-bitter truth about their digestive benefits and how to incorporate them into your diet.
The Health Benefits of Bitter Foods
“Bitter foods are called bitters simply because of their taste and [their] action: increasing saliva and stomach acids,” says Taz Bhatia, MD, integrative health expert and author of Super Woman RX: Discover the Secrets to Lasting Health, Your Perfect Weight, Energy, and Passion with Dr. Taz’s Power Type Plans.
“[Bitters] may help to stimulate the digestive system and improve the absorption of food,” Dr. Bhatia explains. That’s largely because bitters may trigger the production of stomach acid, which facilitates a variety of digestive processes when the food you’ve eaten makes its way to the intestinal region. Additionally, Dr. Bhatia says that bitters may increase the production of digestive enzymes, which further aids food absorption. Those extra enzymes may also help prevent food malabsorption and leaky gut, in which food particles and/or microbes make their way out of the intestines and into the bloodstream, causing inflammation.
There’s also some evidence that bitter foods may work like prebiotics in the gut. “[Bitter foods] are packed with fiber, both soluble and insoluble, which stimulates the growth of healthy gut bacteria,” say Clifford and Sedivy. Some research suggests that bitter foods may help regulate hunger and quell cravings for sweets. “These foods are plant-based and packed with vitamins and minerals as well as fiber, which makes them super nutritious,” Clifford and Sedivy add.
But there’s a chance these health benefits are just the tip of the iceberg. “Our body’s taste receptors are incredibly complex, likely more than science has documented thus far,” says Clifford and Sedivy. Today, scientists are working to have a greater understanding of the role our taste receptors play in our brain, liver and gut.
How to Incorporate Bitter Foods Into Your Diet
If you want to enjoy the gut benefits of bitters, it’s simple: Just eat more bitter foods.
But what if a shot of apple cider vinegar makes you feel queasy? No need to hold your nose. According to Dr. Bhatia, Clifford and Sedivy, bitter herbs and foods run the gamut from greens, like arugula, broccoli rabe, Brussels sprouts, dandelion greens, radicchio and kale, grapefruit and cranberries and herbs like mint and yellow dock.
While there are plenty of bitters supplements or tonics on the market, going for whole foods is always the best choice. “Everyone can benefit from eating more fruits and vegetables,” say Clifford and Sedivy.
If you’re most concerned with aiding digestion, Dr. Bhatia recommends eating bitters 15 minutes before a full meal, or eating bitter herbs or other foods three to four times a week. “While some people may experience the effects after one meal, many find an improvement in gut health when [bitter foods are] taken continuously,” she says.
When to Ease Off Bitters
One caveat: Clifford and Sedivy advise that anyone who has acid reflux, stomach ulcers or other digestive issues may want to consult their doctor prior to starting a diet that includes bitters. It’s also possible to have too much of a good thing. “Eating too many of these foods could cause unfriendly side effects like bloating, gas and diarrhea,” Clifford and Sedivy note.
You’ll maximize the gut benefits of bitter foods if you take other steps to support a healthy gut, say Clifford and Sedivy. Additional strategies for improving gut health include drinking enough water, eating fermented foods, reducing stress, exercising regularly, following a fiber-rich diet and cutting back on sugar and salt.
As more research suggests that our gut health has a major impact on our overall well-being, there’s greater importance in feeding your microbiome with nourishing foods. And that’s a good reason to make a place for bitter foods in your diet.