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A Longevity Expert Says This Underrated Fruit Is Great For Blood Sugar Balance

bitter melon longevity chopsticks and hand
Image by NAOKO KAKUTA / Stocksy
September 20, 2020

Ask longevity expert, National Geographic fellow, and Blue Zones founder Dan Buettner about the most longevity-supporting foods, and he'll likely tell you: Just keep things simple. "Longevity foods are simple foods," he shares on the mindbodygreen podcast—meaning, swap the processed and refined junk for whole, organic ingredients, and you'll likely enhance your life span by leaps and bounds. 

But in terms of which specific fruits and veggies to munch on, he does throw a few wild cards into the mix. Here's a particularly healthy find that's rife throughout Okinawan villages: According to Buettner's Blue Zones research, we should all be eating more bitter melon. 

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What's so great about bitter melon?

Think of bitter melon (also commonly referred to as "goya") as a distant cousin to your cantaloupe or honeydew. In fact, it's technically part of the gourd family and doesn't really look like a melon at all: "It looks like a warty cucumber," says Buettner. 

Aesthetics aside, bitter melon has some pretty impressive nutritional benefits. "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," writes registered dietitian Mascha Davis, R.D., MPH, about the benefits of bitter melon.

Specifically, Buettner notes that the melon can be beneficial for diabetes and prediabetes: "There's three compounds in it that help lower blood sugar," he explains. These compounds (called chantarin, polypeptide-p, and vicine, in case you're curious) have been shown to act similar to insulin when they're ingested in the body1. Of course, much more research is necessary before we can consider bitter melon a helpful treatment for the chronic condition, but the blood sugar benefits (and Buettner's anthropological evidence for longevity) shouldn't be ignored. 

How to incorporate bitter melon into your diet. 

This may come as no surprise, but bitter melon is, uh, bitter. (It's due to the high amount of phenols, flavonoids, isoflavones, terpenes, anthraquinones, and glucosinolates, notes Davis.) That said, many opt for a supplement or concentrated juice to avoid the less than stellar flavor. 

However, some people really do like the strong taste of bitter melon, so don't knock it until you try it (you can usually find it in most Asian or Indian markets, or sometimes at health food stores). Try adding it to curries and soups along with other healthy vegetables, or even pickling the bitter melon for a slightly unique flavor profile. 

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The takeaway. 

When it comes to longevity superfoods, simplicity is key. And while bitter melon may not sound like a conventional add to your fruit bowl, it's been beloved for years in a variety of cuisines and communities—many of which, according to Buettner, tend to live the longest and the healthiest lives.

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