When it comes to eating a healthy diet that will also help us lose weight, many of us immediately think of including more superfoods like blueberries, walnuts, fresh-caught salmon or olive oil in our diet. But nutrition experts are quick to point out that there are countless compounds, routinely referred to as “plant medicines,” that go beyond the usual list of superfoods. When consumed, these compounds spur your gallbladder to produce the bile that breaks down fats and sweeps them out of your body (instead of onto your thighs!). And it turns out the best of these superstar ingredients may be bitter greens like kale, watercress, collards and dandelion leaves. Keep reading to learn how the powerful plant medicines inside bitter greens heal the body, and why experts believe they are likely the missing tool in your weight-loss tool kit.
What are bitter greens?
Bitter greens include the green, leafy vegetables kale, arugula, dandelion greens, collard greens, endive, watercress, radicchio, Brussels sprouts and more. As their name implies, these vegetables have a strong bitter taste. But the antioxidant- and fiber-rich veggies also boast an impressive number of health benefits, from lowering blood pressure to improving blood-sugar control. And then there’s the weight-loss benefits:
4 ways bitter greens speed weight loss
1. Bitter foods outsmart your sweet tooth
The magic happens as soon as you take your first bite of a bitter food like arugula or dandelion greens. Bitters are proven to knock out up to 93% of sweet cravings as soon as the foods hit the tongue, according to Swedish research.
These naturally bitter plant foods also have a unique high-nutrient, low-calorie profile, which means they make us feel full. Ann Louise Gittleman, PhD, New York Times bestselling author of over 35 books and long time First expert and contributor, says, “The weight-loss effects of bitters may be the world’s best-kept secret.”
2. Bitter greens improve digestion
Most people don’t get enough bitter flavor in their diet, explains women’s health expert Barbara Johnson, MD. “Yet our whole digestive system is meant to react to these bitters.” She adds, “Without bitters in your diet, it’s very difficult for women over 50 to get their GI system working properly.”
One reason bitters are so helpful to the gut: They contain prebiotic fiber. That means they feed our healthiest gut bugs, which protect the gut lining and keep the unhealthy gut bugs in balance. This prebiotic fiber also improves digestion to erase bloat and speed weight loss. “When you remove residual waste, you lose fat and inches,” says clinical herbalist William Siff, author of The Plant Medicine Protocol, who practices Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM).
3. Bitter greens boost detoxification
As you may know, the gallbladder stores a compound called bile that’s made by the liver and released into the small intestine to break down dietary fats. That bile ushers fat and toxins out of our system to optimize weight loss. But what not everyone knows is that bitter foods prompt the gallbladder, one of the body’s organs of detoxification, to kick into high gear. This change is linked to a 53% improvement in metabolism, reports a Harvard University team. Says Gittleman, “Bitter greens send a powerful signal to the gallbladder to fire up metabolism for weight loss.”
4. Bitters heal a sluggish gallbladder
Optimal gallbladder function is important, since up to 80% of women over 50 have insufficient bile production, says Gittleman. Bitter foods can even help when the gallbladder has been removed, as they encourage the liver to continuously drip small amounts of fat-emulsifying good stuff into the gut in the gallbladder’s absence. In fact, Gittleman’s book Radical Metabolism is also known as “The No Gallbladder Diet” among fans who have had their gland surgically removed. (Click to read more ways to heal a sluggish gallbladder.)
Compounds in bitter foods can heal the body head-to-toe
“Medicinal plants are necessary to optimize our metabolic health so we can lose weight,” explains Siff. But the perks of plant medicines stretch beyond weight loss. Siff sees people transform their health by eating more bitter greens. Dr. Johnson herself credits healing foods like bitter greens with helping to reverse her multiple sclerosis. Monica McConico lost 165 pounds and got off prescription meds eating more bitter greens. And Theresa Weekes lost 65 pounds and avoided gallbladder surgery using her own bitter-greens approach. (Keep scrolling for their stories.)
Delicious ways to enjoy bitter foods
To test out this nutritious approach and experience all the benefits these plant medicines offer, try adding a bitter food to your routine twice a day for 30 days. It can be as easy as eating bitter greens like kale, arugula or dandelion leaves in salads or enjoying bitter black coffee or dark chocolate. “The great thing about The Plant Medicine Protocol is that it is additive and works with any and all approaches to diet,” Siff explains. “The universal benefits of medicinal plants are the best thing about them.” Follow these tips to make it easy and delicious…
1. Start small
If you find the taste of bitter foods off-putting, there’s good news. Purdue University research finds our tastebuds quickly evolve to acquire a taste for these healing foods. The gentle, mild bitterness of a lemon peel in water is a good baby step in the right direction.
2. Don’t mask the taste
“If you hide the bitter taste, you won’t get the health results,” cautions Dr. Johnson. Although hiding greens in a smoothie or casserole has health benefits, it won’t trigger the metabolic-benefits of tasting the true bitter flavor. Instead, try softening the flavor of rigid, raw kale leaves by massaging them a bit during food prep. You can also blanch raw Swiss chard leaves in hot water for a few seconds before eating. (Click through for delicious dandelion greens recipes.)
3. Make coffee work double duty
We all know about the health benefits of coffee. Black coffee is also one of the most loved and consumed bitter foods on the planet. To get the most out of each cup, enjoy it black, with no sugar or cream. Can’t stomach plain coffee? Try dropping a square of unsweetened dark chocolate (85% cacao) in the mug. Chocolate is another beloved bitter food. (Click to read how coffee speeds weight loss.)
4. Dress up food with bitter seasonings and sauces
Eating a nonbitter meal that’s been spiced with bitter seasoning like bay leaves, horseradish, mustard or turmeric can help, too. “The primary metabolic function of spices is to preheat the digestive system to efficiently break down food,” says Siff. His advice: “Make sure that with every major meal of the day, there is some representative from the culinary category of herbs.”
5. Enjoy an after-dinner drink
For centuries, people have been sipping bitter tinctures made from wild plants to treat indigestion. To get the perks, consider building a healing bitters bars at home, stocking what Siff calls “Smart Spirits,” better known as digestifs. His top picks: Italian Fernet-Branca, Campari, Grand Marnier Orange Bitters and Angostura.
Siff says, “These don’t have a lot of alcohol and you don’t need to drink much — just a sip is enough to activate bitter taste receptors on the tongue to do all the good stuff.” For alcohol-free options, try bitter grapefruit juice or apple cider vinegar.
Bitter greens success story #1: Stefanie Ignoffo, 52
With her husband out of work, Stefanie Ignoffo knew she needed to pick up the slack. But I can barely walk, she worried.
Burned by past diets, Stefanie was desperate to change. So she did what doctors always told her not to—eat more starchy foods like fruit, greens, rice and beans.
With the guidance of Neal Barnard, MD, Stefanie took the plunge to use food as medicine. She mixed earthy greens in fruit smoothies and learned if she lightly sautéed bitter greens in vegetable broth with garlic, lemon and liquid aminos, they tasted savory, “like Polish sausage.” Soon, she craved more plants and ate one head of kale a day. Bonus: Her grocery bill was cut in half!
Stefanie shed 4 pounds on day one and her pain and IBS symptoms began to improve. She later got off her blood-pressure medications and avoided knee surgery. “I’ve never felt so good,” cheers Stefanie, who started Plantspiration.org after her entire family lost 250 pounds eating this way.
Now Stefanie, who had her gallbladder removed in her 30s, says her body functions better in every way. “I wish I knew what I know today about eating plants,” she says. “I would have more organs!”
Bitter greens success story #2: Andrea Kane, 50
Andrea Kane collapsed on the couch, unable to move. Her dreams were modest, as she wished: If I could just lose 10 pounds in a year…
As a fitness instructor, Andrea was supposed to be in great shape. Instead she found herself carrying 100 extra pounds and sidelined by rheumatoid arthritis pain. Taking steroid drugs for a decade also messed with her digestive system. “I thought this was my destiny,” she says. “I didn’t think it had anything to do with my processed meals.”
Then a woman in Andrea’s class started seeing results from eating more plants. Andrea gave it a try. And just 10 days after drinking green juices (made with spinach, kale, blueberries and chia), she was already 10 pounds lighter and hoping she had found her key to pain relief. She ate giant salads and lettuce wraps and explored new ingredients like purple Japanese yams and Trader Joe’s vegan pesto. “Bitter greens really didn’t taste that bitter. I put them in smoothies and spicy stir-fries and they tasted great,” she says. “Not having
cravings was a game changer.”
Andrea dropped 50 pounds that year. Her clothing size fell from 16 to 4. Her pain and GI woes vanished and she got off all her Rx meds. “I’m proof perimenopausal women don’t have to gain weight,” says Andrea, who runs Radical Change Pilates & Wellness studio and inspires on Instagram.
A version of this article originally appeared in our print magazine, First For Women.
Have a weight loss success of your own to share? We want to hear about it. Email email@example.com
This content is not a substitute for professional medical advice or diagnosis. Always consult your physician before pursuing any treatment plan.
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