Nutrition - bitter greens

Tuesday 08 May 2018

After looking at the benefits of leafy green vegetables last week it seems a natural process to look at bitter greens and how they can be beneficial as part of a healthy diet plan. I was first made aware of them when I went on a cookery course on cancer and diet. I never really thought about their health benefits until then, but now appreciate the role that they can play.

What are bitter greens?  
What do I mean by bitter greens; they are a group of foods that as the word implies have a slightly bitter taste when you eat them. They are foods like rocket, endive, dandelion leaves, watercress, curly kale, collards, artichoke leaves and beet tops.

Why are they important?
As a group of foods bitter greens  have been shown to have some real health benefits particularly linked to the digestive system. As I explained in a previous blog that chemotherapy is designed to destroy rapidly dividing cells i.e. the cancer cells, but the cells of the digestive system are also rapidly dividing as a consequence they will be affected as a result of treatment, so anything that can be done to support the digestive system while going through treatment and post treatment would be beneficial.

Before I look at bitter greens in more detail it is worth noting a few interesting facts about our digestive systems.

  • Did you know that our digestive tract is 25 feet in length
  • Did you know that if the small intestine was spread out it would have the total absorption of a tennis court!!
  • 80% of our immune cells live in the digestive tract
  • 100trillion bacteria live in the digestive tract, more than 10 times the number of cells we have in the whole body!!

These facts may appear not to have any relevance to bitter greens but if you rd on you will soon see the link.  

Bitter Greens: what do they do?

  • They stimulate the flow of digestive juices and aid digestion. As soon the bitter flavour hits our tongue this activates the bitter sensors, a signal is sent to the entire digestive tract. This then increases the tone and strength of the peristaltic waves and the production of all digestive juices including bile. The bile helps with the digestion of fats. As a result of this stimulus symptoms of gas, bloating, heartburn and indigestion are usually alleviated.
  • They also stimulate the appetite which helps if appetite is poor. This is useful in cases of appetite reduction or during recovery from treatment.
  • They stimulate liver activity. Remember our liver is our organ of detoxification disarming chemicals and toxins and preparing them for elimination via the kidneys or bowel.
  • They heal the gut wall by activating our self repair mechanisms within the gut
  • The flow of digestive juices should help those who suffer constipation.
  • Exciting new studies show that bitters can activate the immune system, through sensors in the small intestine which makes sense when you consider how many immune cells we have in our gut.
  • When our digestive system is not working properly this can also lead to low energy and fatigue. This can be due to reabsorption of toxins from the bowel if the bowel is too sluggish or poor absorption of nutrients.
  • Apart from the digestive benefits bitter greens are also very nutritious. They contain good levels of calcium and magnesium needed for good bone health. They are rich in anti-oxidants including vitamin E and beta carotene.

Ways to use bitter greens

  • Bitter greens can be used in many ways one of the simplest is to use them in a salad with other salad ingredients and make a French style dressing which will help break up the bitter taste.
  • Another simple way; In a large pan sauté 2 cloves of garlic that have been crushed in a little oil, add 1 lb of mustard greens and a tablespoon of apple cider vinegar. Toss to coat the greens until slightly wilted but still bright green, Remove from the pan and toss with a little sesame oil and seasoning. Serve immediately.

Blog originally written by Caroline October 2013

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