Julie M. Goolsby, M.A., received her Master's degree in women's studies from Georgia State University.
Molly is a registered dietitian nutritionist who holds a bachelor’s degree in nutrition from Texas Christian University and a master’s degree in nutrition interventions, communication, and behavior change from Tufts University.
Sure, kale gets all the glory, but did you know it isn’t the only game in town? There are plenty of other greens out there that pack a powerful punch. In fact, kale is just one variety of a whole category you should be eating more of: bitter greens. Often overlooked because of their tart flavor profile, bitter greens are chock-full of good-for-your-gut fiber, potent antioxidants, and calming magnesium.
Curious about the hype but intimidated by the flavor? Here's everything you need to know about why bitter greens are so good for you and how to make them actually taste good.
What are bitter greens?
As a very basic definition, bitter greens are green, leafy vegetables that taste, well, bitter, because they contain chemical compounds known as glucosinolates.
Many of these veggies are members of the Brassica family, also known as cruciferous vegetables like broccoli, cabbage, and kale, among others.
Bitter greens are so good for you because they are packed with vitamins and nutrients, including potassium, calcium, vitamins A and C, antioxidants, fiber, and even protein.
Some common bitter greens include:
- Broccoli rabe
6 benefits of eating bitter greens.
You've probably heard a million times to eat your greens, but why are they so important? In general, eating a plant-based diet with a variety of fruits and vegetables has been shown to provide a healthy balance of vitamins, minerals, and fiber. More specifically, bitter greens can provide key nutrients that boost digestion, heart health, and more. Here are the top science-backed health benefits of eating your bitter greens:
1. They are nutrient-dense.
Bitter greens are packed with nutrients, including vitamins A, C, and K, as well as potassium, calcium, and magnesium. They are also low in sodium and high in fiber. For example, just one serving of kale provides over 100 percent of the recommended daily intake (RDI) of vitamin A and more than 40 percent of the vitamin C RDI. Vitamin A supports eye, heart, and kidney function among other things.
2. They are antioxidant-rich.
Given their high nutrient content, it's no surprise that bitter greens are also rich in antioxidants. Dark green leafy vegetables like kale and spinach, and cruciferous vegetables like broccoli and cabbage, are powerful sources of antioxidants, vitamins, polyphenols, and flavonoids. Antioxidants protect our cells from damage, preventing chronic disease, cognitive decline, and signs of aging like wrinkles.
3. They have cancer-fighting properties.
While more research is needed, cruciferous vegetables, including bitter greens, have shown promise in helping to prevent certain types of cancers. In a study of over 180,000 women, it was found that the higher intake of fruits and vegetables, specifically cruciferous vegetables, may reduce the risk of breast cancer.
Additionally, lab studies on malignant, chemoresistant human melanoma cells have shown that dandelion root extract (DRE) may have potential as a chemotherapeutic agent. DRE is already used as a "detoxifying agent" for tumors of the lung, breast, and uterus, as well as digestive disorders.
4. They support gut health and digestion.
Research shows that eating a plant-based diet helps support a healthy gut microbiome—meaning that it provides a diverse range of "good" bacteria. Cruciferous vegetables, including bitter leafy greens, are excellent choices for providing prebiotic material to sustain gut health. Prebiotics are "food" for the good bacteria in your gut, which means they help your friendly "gut bugs" proliferate and survive. A healthy gut biome not only aids in digestion, but it also helps to maintain your overall health.
5. They are packed with fiber.
Not only do bitter greens aid in digestion, but they are also high in fiber. Dietary fiber in the form of vegetables and fruits provides considerable health benefits, including better digestion and absorption of nutrients. Spinach, collard greens, turnip, and mustard greens are all fiber-boosting bitter greens to try.
6. They are calming.
That's right, bitter leafy greens, along with several other healthy foods, can help ease symptoms of anxiety. A study that included patients diagnosed with generalized anxiety disorder (GAD) showed that antioxidants (particularly vitamins A, C, and E) can help to relieve symptoms of anxiety. Researchers did note that the group that performed the best included antioxidant supplements in addition to medication.
Bitter greens are also high in magnesium, which has been linked to a reduction of stress and anxiety symptoms. Eating just half a cup of boiled spinach provides 20% of your daily value (DV) of magnesium. Just one more reason to eat your greens!
How to eat bitter greens.
Bitter greens are an easy base for hearty salads. But, if you're overwhelmed by the bitterness of these potent greens, fear not. There are many ways to cut the bitter in bitter greens. Here are just a few to try:
Try taking bunches of greens and rubbing them with your hands until they look a little wilted and darker green. This quick process helps to release the bitterness. Massaging greens with salad dressing will take even more of the bitterness away. Kale can be massaged with salad dressing for 10 plus minutes. In fact, massaged kale salads keep well overnight in the refrigerator and there will likely be no hint of bitterness but all the same nutrients!
Cut the bitterness with food pairings.
Adding some spicy or sweet flavors can help to tame the strong flavor of bitter greens. For example, tossing in some dried fruit helps to balance the bitter with some sweet. If you eat meat, you can try adding in some sausage or bacon, perhaps to a soup or stew, to cut the bitterness.
Minced garlic, olive oil, and salt are also simple ingredients that can transform the flavor of a bitter greens dish.
There are a variety of cooking methods to make eating greens more palatable. From blanching to braising to blending in a smoothie, you may be surprised at how creative you can get with cooking bitter greens.
5 bitter greens recipes to try:
- Spring Dandelion Detox Juice: Refreshing any time of year, this beverage is a tasty way to detox.
- Stir-Fried Kale: This quick and easy kale dish makes a great side dish or addition to salads and other dishes.
- Kale Breakfast Salad: You read that right. Start your day off with your greens with this unique breakfast twist.
- Kale Bowls: Who knew you could do so much with kale? And if you get tired of kale, just switch it out for a different green. For example, spinach makes an easy and delicious stand-in.
- Chocolate Chunk Green Smoothie Recipe: You don't have to give up chocolate to get more greens in your life. This yummy smoothie will make you think you're eating dessert. You'll forget there's spinach blended in with the bananas and almond milk. And the best part is the blueberries and cacao nibs sprinkled on top. Total. Win.
A final word about bitter greens.
In general, most people can't go wrong with adding these distinctive veggies to their diet for an instant health upgrade.
That said, some folks find that they are allergic to certain greens, particularly kale, mustard, and dandelion. It's also possible to develop food allergies to foods that you eat regularly. If you find yourself in this group, obviously you'll want to avoid the offending veggies.
If you have questions about your diet or health condition—particularly if you have any digestive disorders—speak with your doctor first before introducing any new foods to your diet.
Ready to learn more about how to unlock the power of food to heal your body, prevent disease & achieve optimal health? Register now for our FREE web class with nutrition expert Kelly LeVeque.