Food and Nutrition

Bitter Foods Are Incredibly Good for Your Gut and Digestion—Here, the Top 10 That RDs Recommend

Emily Laurence

Photo: Getty Images/ Eva-Katalin
Of the five different types of taste—sweet, salty, sour, bitter, and umami—bitter isn't exactly the crowd favorite. But if you see bitterness as something to avoid, you're missing out both in terms of flavor and nutritional benefits. What's more, the wide range of bitter foods and drinks available to us covers a lot of ground; chances are, there are plenty of bitter foods you actually really enjoy already (see also: cacao, coffee, and cranberries).

According to registered dietitian Theresa Shank, RD, bitter foods can have a sharp, tannic, and sometimes pungent flavor and include vegetables, fruit, herbs, and drinks. Some bitter foods are subtle in flavor, and many also express elements of sweetness, sourness, and so on (so eating the foods included in the bitter foods list below won't taste like you're eating soap).

Each source has its own unique nutritional benefits, but she says something bitter foods all have in common is that they are good for the gut and support digestive health. "Bitter foods enhance digestion, stimulate appetite, and stimulate the release of digestive juices in the pancreas," Shank says. For this reason, it can be helpful to sip on a bitter beverage before eating or work bitter foods into your meal or appetizer.

Need some ideas? Rounded up here are ten bitter foods and drinks, all of which support digestion as well as bring their own special benefits to the table.

10 bitter foods and drinks full of nutritional benefits

1. Cacao

While processed chocolate is definitely more sweet than bitter, cacao in its pure form has a more pronounced bitter taste and is also richer in health benefits. Besides getting digestive juices revved up, cacao is full of nutrients including magnesium, potassium, iron, and zinc. It's also high in flavonoids, a type of polyphenol that's great for the brain. Oh, and before you get up in arms about the sugar content, get this: there is zero sugar in pure cacao—zero! Another benefit of cacao you might have experienced first-hand is that it's linked to boosting mood.

2. Kale

Different types of salad greens have different taste profiles and Shank says kale is a popular one that falls under the bitter umbrella. "As cliché as it might sound, kale is king," she says. "Kale is packed with nutrients like vitamins A, K, B6, C and calcium, potassium, copper, and manganese. It is also full of antioxidants which help the body fight against environmental toxins and free-radicals. If too many of these toxins build up in the body, cell damage can occur which may lead to inflammation and other diseases." While all greens are nutrient-rich, including being good sources of fiber and high in antioxidants, what makes kale special is that it's especially good for the liver. This is because it contains a category of phytochemicals called glucosinolates—a group of compounds that help to detoxify the liver and support other body functions.

3. Arugula

Shank says that arugula is another type of green that qualifies as a bitter food; its bitterness is what gives it a peppery bite that makes it so flavorful. Arugula is also good for bone health because it's a powerhouse source of vitamins A, C, and K.

4. Dandelion greens

Of all the bitter greens, dandelion greens are the most bitter. While this is exactly why many people love its taste, and others find it far too overpowering. If the latter describes exactly how you feel about dandelion greens, try working them into a medley alongside spinach, collard greens, or kale instead of having them on their own. Either way, consuming them will help jumpstart digestion (as all bitter foods do) and is also particularly good for the liver—just like kale. You can also reap the same benefits by consuming dandelion in tea form.

5. Cranberries

In terms of bitter fruits, cranberries are one of the most popular. While many people cook with cranberries at Thanksgiving, it's certainly not the only time to work the fruit into your meals. Cranberries taste great in summer salads, as a marinade for barbecued meat, and in smoothies or parfaits. More of a cranberry juice drinker? Just check out the nutritional panel. "Make sure it's pure cranberry and not cranberry juice cocktail, which is loaded with added sugar," Shank says.

6. Citrus fruits

Oranges, lemons, and limes are all bitter fruits that are good for digestive health and nourish the gut. So yes, there really is something to adding lemon to your water after all. Health coach and herbalist Rachelle Robinett says citrus peels can especially be good for digestion. She likes to bake citrus peels to make chips for a gut-healthy snack. A pretty clever way to cut down on food waste, right?

7. Apple cider vinegar

There's a reason why apple cider vinegar is a mainstay in so many healthy eater's pantries. While ACV shots aren't exactly easy to down (and heads up, drinking it plain is discouraged; it should always be watered down), Shank says there's certainly no need to as there are other ways to work apple cider vinegar into your diet, if you want to. "Next time you have a salad of bitter greens, add a little ACV to enhance the bitterness of these foods," she says. Still not into it? She says lime or lemon juice works just as well.

Watch the video below to learn more about apple cider vinegar:

8. Green tea

If all the bitter foods rounded up here are still a little intimidating to you, start with green tea. It's not as bitter tasting as the others rounded up here, but Shank says it still qualities as bitter and has the gut health-supporting benefits of the other sources. Green tea is one of the healthiest beverages you can sip, too. It's linked to supporting brain health, heart health, and improving mood.

How does regular green tea compare to matcha? Watch the video below to find out:

9. Coffee

Coffee drinkers, we have good news: you're already consuming something bitter regularly. Similar to green tea, coffee is also linked to benefitting the brain and heart. And of course, it certainly comes with an energy boost, too.

Watch the video below to learn more about the health benefits of coffee:

10. Chamomile tea

If you like the idea of a bitter bev but don't want the caffeine boost, Shank recommends going for chamomile. It's still a bitter herb, but instead of being energizing, it's linked to relaxation.

Are there times we shouldn't consume bitter foods?

While all ten foods and drinks highlighted here are loaded with nutritional benefits, Shank does say there are a few factors to be mindful of. "People with kidney stones, gallbladder disease, hiatal hernia, gastritis, or peptic ulcers should not consume bitter foods," she says. She also says that some bitter foods may not be safe to consume during pregnancy so if you're pregnant, check with your doctor. (If you are pregnant, she does say you're good to go when it comes to both bitter greens and chamomile.)

With those guidelines in place, you're free to start experimenting by working more bitter foods into your diet. Once you do, you won't just be boosting your gut health. You'll be adding a whole other layer of flavor to your meals, too. It's a win-win!

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