Bitter is often forgotten, left out, erased from existence in our food. The bitter food elements that are packed with essential nutrients are often missing from our diet because they are processed out. Whether that is through genetic modification or through the stripping of vital nutrients to create processed foods like grains, oils, and sugar. We also tend to avoid bitter foods altogether because we are so accustomed to eating a diet without the bitter flavor.
Sweet, sour, spicy/pungent, salty, and bitter make up the essential flavors that we should be conscious of every day. Each flavor has different functions in the body that help align our bodies with the natural flow of the seasons. In this post, I will go over why bitter food is essential and how to start to incorporate bitter flavors into your diet. If we start to build a diet around the 5 essential flavor profiles and the elements of the seasons then we can more easily accomplish a healthy and well-balanced life.
Healthy Actions of Bitter Foods
Harmonious health corresponds with the five elements. Every season, body organ, color, taste, emotion, orientation, are connected to one of the five elements. I won’t go into great detail about this here. But summer correlates with the fire element which correlates with heat, growth, bitterness, wisdom, concentration, sweat, laughing, joy, blood vessels, small intestines, heart, and mind.
Bitter flavors are cooling(Yin) to the body and help treat overheated conditions, especially in the heart. This is especially good to keep in mind in the summertime when you may be feeling the need to treat heat or excess in the body with bitter foods or herbs. Understanding flavors and how they connect with the seasons and our bodies is an intuition that we have long lost in the modern world. So once we start to become more aware of the natural connections we can better diagnose imbalances and better keep our health on track.
Excess which is also referred to as Yang in Chinese Traditional Medicine is often a sensation most of us experience in the United States. When we overindulge in fatty, sweet, refined, and toxic foods and drinks. A healthy dose of bitter foods and herbs helps cleanse the body and prevents disease. Craving salad after binging on junk food is our body’s way of telling us that it needs bitter foods to help cleanse and restore.
Bitter Phytonutrients in Whole Foods
Most Americans think that eating their vegetables and whole grains is essential to getting in enough fiber to assist in bowel functions. But there is a plethora of phytonutrients and antioxidants within the bitter constituents, that are key to the proper function of digestion. Taking a magic pill isn’t going to help you much because it is not a whole food and it is lacking key phytonutrients that help your body break down complex parts of food. When your food is incomplete your body is not breaking it down properly.
Nature is set up to give us whole and complete foods. Whole foods have the power to heal us. Plants have the medicine we need right when we need it. That is why certain things are in season at certain times. Bitter foods are a natural remedy for ailments that come up in the spring and summertime.
Eating processed foods that are void of complex phytonutrients degrades the immune system, puts our blood sugar levels and emotions out of balance, puts us at risk for degenerative diseases, and makes maintaining a healthy weight nearly impossible.
Bitter phytonutrients that are stripped away from our food include things like magnesium, selenium, and antioxidants. When we are lacking these vital nutrients it causes our adrenal glands to go haywire and is a huge proponent of why we are anxious and stressed. No matter what diet you are consuming, plant-based or carnivorous, if you are consuming processed foods you are likely deprived of essential nutrients, vitamins, and minerals. It is crazy that we pay to have our foods stripped of nutrients, then pay even more for the supplements that contain vitamins/minerals/antioxidants that our food had in the beginning. All you needed was the whole plant and that saves your body, mind, spirit, and pocketbook a whole lot of unnecessary stress.
Food has an important story to tell just based on its shape, color, and makeup. Often times foods that are shaped like a brain or heart naturally take care of our brain and heart. Nature designs food with little clues to help the human brain uncover the story behind plants and their medicinal properties without ever having to read about it in a book. Whole grains such as wheat and brown rice have a protective coating that is bitter and holds essential nutrients that help form a protective coating around our health and immunity.
In Ayurveda bitter is known as tikka and is aligned with Ether and Air. Cooling, bitter food helps Kapha issues like drying up excess water in tissues. It is also good for Pittas because it is cooling and reduces inflammation and acidic issues in the body. But be careful with bitter flavors if you tend to run cold or dry. Ingesting too many bitter foods, especially in colder months can cause serious health issues.
Bitter foods that you can easily include in your diet is alfalfa, leafy greens, kale, arugula, radicchio, dandelion greens, chard, bitter melon, burdock root, radish greens, turnips, celery, grains, rye, quinoa, amaranth, legumes, cacao, citrus, cranberries, papaya, white pepper, and vinegar. They are all great additions to add to your meals when you are feeling the excess come over you.
The energetics of plants such as cold, hot, drying, and moistening combine with the five flavors help us become aware of the properties each herb has and how it interacts with the body. Bitter herbs are known to strengthen, stimulate, cool, and jumpstart the system. They are especially great for activating the liver to help detox and neutralize the body of toxins and stagnation caused by overconsumption of rich foods.
Skin issues become neutralized from the inside out especially with candida overgrowth, parasites, skin eruptions, abscesses, tumors, and cysts. It also clears heat and dampness in the heart, intestines, and clears helps with cholesterol and fat build-up. Plus bitter flavors can be helpful for ani microbial and anti-inflammatory situations.
Bitter even helps remove stagnant blockages that are both emotional and physical. The liver is emotionally connected to our rage, anger, and depression. Using herbs can help us move pent-up anger out of our system. This is why bitter flavor plays a huge role in our emotions and brain. Bitter keeps our emotional health aligned and helps us keep a healthy state of mind.
Bitter herbs like gentian are also digestion aids. They help weakened digestion systems and will start producing a healthy production of bile that will help soothe the digestion tract after an irritating meal. Bile helps food break down properly so that your body can better absorb vital nourishment from the food you eat. The flavor can also normalize blood sugar, relieve gas, heartburn, and nausea. Certain bitter herbs can be extremely purgative and induce bowel movements when in extreme need.
Dandelion hops, valerian, chaparral, echinacea, pau d’arco, horsetail, bitter melon, gentian, chicory, yellow dock, burdock, feverfew, vervain, sage, poppy, mugwort, wormwood, aloe vera, life root, skullcap, figwort, wild cherry root/bark, aspen bark, poke root, bugleweed, Culver’s root, juniper, black walnut, false unicorn root, pennyroyal, boneset, gravel root, wahoo and cacao, wild yam, dogwood, fringe tree, pipsissewa, Oregon grape root, tag alder, sweet flag, and yarrow are all bitter herbs.
Find more information about these herbs and which one is right for you from the books The Earthwise Herbal and Plants for the People. And make sure you consult a doctor and trained herbalist to get you the proper help you need. Also, look into formulating your own bitter tonic using the herbs that are right for you in a daily tonic. It is a great way to ensure you are getting proper nutrition every day.
Healing With Whole Foods: Asian Traditions and Modern Nutrition by Paul Pitchford
The Kosmic Kitchen Cookbook: Everyday Herbalism and Recipes for Radical Wellness by Sarah Benjamin & Summer Singletary