Bitter Melon: How To Use It For Diabetes, Blood Sugar Balance, In Cooking & More

Photo by Suzanne Clements

Bitter melon actually doesn't look like a melon at all, although it is a distant cousin. This plant grows as a small, round fruit and is native to Asia. Originally cultivated across India, it was shipped to China in the 13th century. Since then, it gained popularity and is now used across Southeast Asia, Africa, and the Caribbean.

The fruit itself is quite bitter, but this is what makes it special (and there are easy ways to make it taste good, which I'll share later!). It gives many dishes a twist, and in fact, some people crave the taste of bitter melon and swear that it is what gives certain dishes their characteristic flavor. But what makes this fruit even more appealing is its medicinal qualities. It is widely used in traditional and ayurvedic medicine for anything from wound healing to diabetes to digestive and liver support.

The health benefits of bitter melon.

Photo: Alan Shapiro

As a registered dietitian in private practice, I see a lot of diabetics, which isn't that surprising—50 percent of the population in California is pre-diabetic. Beyond that, between 2010 and 2030, there will be a 69 percent increase in the number of adults with diabetes in developing countries and a 20 percent increase in developed countries.

While there are plenty of drugs to treat diabetes and pre-diabetes, many of them have side effects. I think there is tremendous potential that can be harnessed from traditional medicine and nutritional interventions that can help to reverse pre-diabetes and treat diabetes with fewer side effects. Bitter melon has many promising properties that can potentially play a role.

It may be a small fruit, but it's mighty. Packed with phytonutrients and vitamins, it's a good source of vitamins C, A, and E. It also is rich in B vitamins, including folate and B2. Additionally, it has potassium, iron, magnesium, and zinc. If that's not enough, it contains high levels of antioxidants. The medicinal properties of bitter melon are attributed to antioxidant classes called phenols, flavonoids, isoflavones, terpenes, anthraquinones, and glucosinolates. These are also the compounds that contribute to the bitter taste of the fruit.

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How bitter melon helps diabetes & blood sugar balance.

In traditional Chinese medicine, bitter melon is frequently used for diabetes. The main components of bitter melon that are attributed to the anti-diabetic effects are called chantarin, polypeptide-p, and vicine. The thought is that, when ingested, these chemicals act somewhat similarly to insulin: They help the body absorb blood sugar into cells and store it in muscle and fat. This all sounds very promising, but high-quality research on diabetes and bitter melon is still somewhat conflicting, and more evidence is needed, particularly given that the dose needed to achieve anti-diabetic effects is quite high.

The potential healing properties of bitter melon are not limited to anti-diabetic effects. In traditional Chinese medicine, the plant is believed to have anti-inflammatory, anti-mutagen or cholesterol-lowering properties. The fruit, leaves, stems, and roots are all used to help treat gastrointestinal disorders, ulcers, kidney stones, liver disease, cancer, infections, psoriasis, menstrual problems, and skin infections and wounds. Bitter melon is believed to have antiviral properties, stimulating the body's own defense system, and supporting fighting off infections. It is also a popular traditional remedy for malaria due to its anthelmintic properties.

Bitter melon is a true superfood in traditional medicine. Many of the purported properties are not backed by a lot of science, but they are certainly worth looking into as part of a holistic health plan.

How to use bitter melon in cooking.

Photo: iStock

Bitter melon can be used in a number of ways. If it is taken for medicinal purposes, it is usually available as a capsule or juice. The supplements are highly concentrated extracts of the seeds. They are commercially available and have few side effects, though an exception is that people with low blood sugar should be cautious when taking bitter melon supplements, as there could be adverse effects (it is, after all, mimicking insulin in your body, as noted above!). I'd recommend discussing this with your dietitian or doctor to make sure there are no contraindications.

When cooking with bitter melon, the healing effects tend to be less potent, as some of the nutrients are denatured during the cooking process, though there are still health benefits to be reaped. Pachad, a South Indian creamy cucumber yogurt sauce that contains bitter melon, is considered a medicinal dish for diabetes. The fruit is popular in Indian cuisine: In North India, it's used in curries and is often served pickled. In South India, it is eaten fried with other vegetables, served with nuts, or in soups.

In Chinese cuisine, the fruit is valued for its bitter taste and is usually fried with meat. Bitter melon is a popular ingredient in Okinawan (one of the long-lived Blue Zones) dishes. The fruit is also widely used in Sri Lanka, Indonesia, Vietnam, the Philippines, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Trinidad, and Tobago or Mauritius. In all these cultures, bitter melon is valued for its special taste and healing properties.

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Where to buy bitter melon.

Many Asian or Indian grocers or markets carry bitter melon, which looks like a shriveled, light-green cucumber. You can also occasionally find it at natural markets or Whole Foods (I'd call and ask ahead of time). Most natural markets will carry it in tincture or capsule form, and of course, you can find these online as well.

Want to incorporate bitter melon into your life? Try making this chutney, which you can use to add a burst of flavor to all of your meals!

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