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The Many Benefits of Bitter Greens

Updated: Aug 9, 2021

Did you know bitter greens have the best nutrient to calorie ratio? This means these vegetables are the best type of food you could possibly eat.

The benefits of bitter greens are greater than any supplement or pill, and they have no bad side effects! Moreover, these leafy greens are easily added to any meal!

What are Bitter Greens?

Bitter greens are dark, leafy vegetables that are packed with vitamins, minerals, and other micronutrients. Bitter greens include:

  • Arugula

  • Kale

  • Endive

  • Broccoli Rabe

  • Dandelion Greens

  • Frisee

  • Mustard Greens

  • Rapini

  • Turnip Greens

  • Watercress

  • Okra

  • Collard Greens

Bitter greens are different from sweet greens in taste and nutrients. While sweet greens, like iceberg lettuce, are sweet in flavor, bitter greens are, as the same describes, bitter or slightly sour in taste. The bitterness of the vegetable can depend on when they are picked in the season and other situational factors.

Benefits of Bitter Greens:

Bitter greens are some of the most nutrient-dense foods you can eat. Vegetables like kale and arugula are packed with nutrients like Vitamins A, C, and K, plus potassium, calcium, and magnesium. Specifically, only one serving of kale has over 100% of the recommended daily intake (RDI) of vitamin A and over 40% of the vitamin C RDI.

Bitter greens are also rich in antioxidants. Romaine lettuce and spinach are great sources of antioxidants. These antioxidants protect our cells from free radical damage and can help prevent chronic disease and cognitive decline.

Several studies have demonstrated bitter greens can actually help prevent certain kinds of cancer. Dandelion root extract (DRE) has been suggested to have potential as a chemotherapeutic agent. DRE is already in use as a detoxifying agent for lung, breast, and ureteral tumors. Another study of 180,000 women found that a higher intake of bitter greens may reduce the risk of breast cancer.

Gut health and digestion depend on the nutrients provided by bitter greens. Beyond vitamins and minerals, bitter greens also provide the gut with beneficial prebiotic material. Prebiotics are essential in supporting a healthy microbiome. An unhealthy microbiome can lead to conditions like IBS, psoriasis, and anxiety. The strong bitter taste of bitter greens activates your salivary glands, producing enzymes that will assist in the digestion process. The more your food is digested before it reaches your stomach, the more nutrients your body will be able to absorb.

Bitter greens also aid the gut in their high fiber content. Bitter greens like spinach, collard greens, turnip, and mustard greens are especially high in fiber. Dietary fiber from fruits and vegetables can help reduce your risk of cardiovascular disease and obesity. Fiber also benefits digestion and can help your body absorb more nutrients.

Bitter greens are essential for gallbladder health (even if you don’t have a gallbladder)! Okra, endives, broccoli rabe, and other bitter greens will stimulate bile production. This will assist in healthy fat digestion. A good rule of thumb is “bitter is better.” The more bitter the food, the more bile produced and the more digestion benefits.

Surprisingly, several studies have suggested bitter greens can help ease symptoms of anxiety. Specifically, nutrients like Vitamins A, C, and E and other antioxidants have been proven to lower oxidative stress in the brain, easing anxiety symptoms. Further, magnesium, which is found in spinach and other bitter greens, has been linked to stress reduction and the lessening of anxiety symptoms.

Bitter greens have also been found to help reduce food cravings, cleanse your liver, purify your blood, reduce acid reflux, bloating, and gas, clear the skin, prevent anemia, and lower your cholesterol.

Our Favorite Bitter Greens:

Kale - Kale is arguably the most nutritious plant. Kale is packed with Vitamins A, K, C, B6, magnesium, calcium, copper, potassium, and magnesium. This bitter green also contains betacarotene, flavonoids, and polyphenols that act as powerful antioxidants, reducing oxidative stress throughout your body.

Arugula- This bitter green is native to the Mediterranean region. Arugula has been proven to be high in cancer-fighting agents like erucin, a powerful isothiocyanate that reduces the activation of carcinogens and increases detoxification. Kale also contains high amounts of calcium, potassium, folate, and Vitamins C, K, and A.

Romaine- Not to be confused with iceberg lettuce, romaine lettuce is high in nutritional value. Romaine contains very high amounts of calcium, phosphorus, magnesium, and potassium. Romaine also has high anti-oxidant levels. However, romaine is low in fiber.

Dandelion Greens- This bitter green can easily be found in your backyard! It also contains 1.5 grams of protein per serving! Not to mention, dandelion greens contain nutrients that support eyesight- lutein and zeaxanthin. Further, these bitter greens contain Vitamins K, A, and C and high amounts of calcium.

Broccoli Rabe- This cruciferous vegetable is actually more closely related to turnips than broccoli. Broccoli rob is a great source of vitamins C, K, and A, iron, calcium, magnesium, potassium, and zinc. Notably, broccoli rob is very low in calorie count, with only 9 calories per cup.

Incorporating Bitter Greens into Your Diet:

It is surprisingly easy to work these magic vegetables into your diet! Adding arugula or kale to your daily salad is a great way to boost your nutrient levels.

When buying bitter greens, look for organic greens with crisp leaves. It is also important to buy your greens when they are in season for maximum nutrients.

  • Collards, kale, turnip greens, and mustard greens are in season from early spring through October.

  • Beet greens and swiss chard grow through spring to fall.

  • Dandelion greens are best in spring and summer.

Click here to find your local guide to seasonal foods! You can also buy your bitter greens when they are in season and freeze them to store for later use.

Bitter greens are also great to use in breakfast smoothies to get a burst of nutrients and energy in the morning. Our favorite breakfast smoothie includes healthy fats and protein to help balance your blood sugar by slowing the digestion of carbohydrates. This will prevent a spike in blood sugar.

The Johnson Center for Health services patients in-person in our Blacksburg and Virginia Beach / Norfolk locations. We also offer telemedicine for residents of Virginia and North Carolina!


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