How Bitter Foods Can Help Cut Sugar Out of Your Diet

What if you had an easy way to help suppress your desire for sugary foods? It turns out bitter foods may be what you’ve been looking for.

It’s no secret that added sugars in processed foods can be a health hazard. Excess consumption of sugar has been linked to diseases such as heart disease, type 2 diabetes, cancer and obesity. But it can be hard to resist the sugary cereals, desserts, snacks and other processed foods we’re constantly confronted with.

Is there a way out of this vicious cycle? Research has revealed that bitter tasting foods may actually be able to block your sweet taste and make you lose interest in sweets. Read on to find out how this works and how it can help you cut down your sugar intake.

Related: A Guide to Cutting Sugar Out of Your Diet

What Can Insects Tell Us About the Biology of Human Taste?

Surprisingly, quite a lot. Animals, including insects, have groups of taste cells that can detect whether chemicals in food taste either bitter or sweet. When bitter chemicals are detected, the taste cells will send alarm signals to the brain because a bitter flavor means a food may contain toxins.

Whereas, a sweet taste is received as positive because sweet foods are typically safe to eat. This is why many animals, such as humans, are notoriously attracted to sweet foods and avoid bitter foods.

A 2015 study investigated this phenomenon in more detail. Researchers looked at the feeding habits of flies, who actually have taste cells similar to human taste buds. Interestingly, they found that when flies’ bitter-sensing cells detected certain chemicals in a food, the cells would actually inhibit sweet-sensing cells.

When flies ate a bitter food before being offered a sweet food, the flies avoided the sweet food. This was true even when a bitter chemical was mixed into a food that also tasted sweet. Flies would still stop eating the food when they detected the bitter taste.

In addition, flies had a stronger aversion to chemicals that were particularly toxic to flies. Whereas, they were not as repelled from less-toxic or non-toxic bitter chemicals. Based on this, researchers suggest that each species of animal has naturally evolved to recognize chemicals most toxic to them.

What does this all have to do with humans? Mammals have bitter- and sweet-sensing cells in our taste buds similar to those of flies, and preliminary research on humans found that our taste buds may also release certain chemical messengers when a bitter food is detected that inhibits your sweet taste.

Further research is needed, but the evidence so far suggests that what’s true for flies is likely true for us as well.

Related: DIY Bitters for Digestive Health: Benefits, Tips and Uses

How Can You Use Bitters to Stop Eating Sugary Foods?

The following are some practical suggestions for using this research to improve your diet.

1. Develop a Taste for Bitter Foods

You have many reasons to include bitters in your diet. Bitter foods have additional health benefits beyond their sugar-suppressing action. Bitter flavors are also one of the five primary human tastes, along with salty, sweet, sour and umami. Bitters provide a wider variety of food options and flavors you would not otherwise experience.

It’s true that bitter flavors can indicate toxins in a food. But this generally isn’t a concern with bitter foods that are widely eaten today, like leafy greens or tea.

For example, theobromine is a chemical found in chocolate, tea, acai berries and some other foods. Too much theobromine can be toxic to humans, but you’ll likely get a stomach ache and stop eating these foods long before you consume a lethal dose. The fly study showed us that animals tend to naturally know when we shouldn’t eat something that’s truly toxic.

Try adding some of the following bitter foods to your meals and see which ones you enjoy eating.

  • Leafy Greens – Almost all greens have some degree of bitterness to them, such as lettuce, arugula, dandelion greens, kale, endive, rappini and spinach.
  • Bitter Melon – Also known as bitter gourd, you can find this tropical fruit in the produce section of most larger supermarkets. Check out these helpful tips on how to prepare bitter melon.
  • Drinks –Common bitter drinks include coffee, tea and beer. And if you want the full bitter benefits of your coffee or tea, skip the sugary concoctions at coffee shops and drink them straight.
  • Herbs and Spices – Many herbs and spices are actually bitters, such as dill, saffron, turmeric, fenugreek, basil, chamomile, parsley and oregano. Try making pesto with mixed fresh herbs, or a fresh herb soup.
  • Sesame seeds – Sprinkle these on top of almost any dish, or add tahini for extra creaminess and a bitter background flavor.
  • Dark Chocolate – The higher the percentage of cocoa in the chocolate, the more bitter it will be.
  • Citrus Peels – These can balance sweet foods and make a great addition to baked goods, drinks or savory sauces.
  • Fermented Foods – Fermented foods, such as sauerkraut, kefir, yogurt and pickles, all contain a distinct mix of bitter and sour flavors. Many have reported that fermented foods can also help tame sugar cravings.

2. Eat Bitter Foods Before Sweet Foods

Having a green salad is a tasty way to start a meal, but the fly study shows it can also help to clamp down on overeating sweets afterwards.

Another option is to start your meal with a cup of coffee or tea, or a piece of dark chocolate. You could also include a side of sauerkraut with your main meal, or have a dish rich with bitter herbs. Then pay attention to how you feel throughout the meal and see if it helps you to cut back on dessert.

3. Eat Foods that Are a Mixture of Bitter and Sweet

The study also showed us that bitter and sweet flavors can be mixed in the same food, but the bitter will still inhibit your sweet taste.

Various traditional systems, such as Traditional Chinese Medicine and Ayurveda, also speak of the importance of balancing tastes in your meals. Eating too much of one flavor, such as sweet, can throw out your body’s inner balance. This can lead to unhealthy food cravings and other potential problems.

Try a green salad with a sweet dressing, steamed bitter melon with a sweet teriyaki sauce, or tiramisu made with strong coffee.

Related at Care2

261 comments

Anne H
Anne H20 hours ago

Fascinating

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Mike H
Mike H21 hours ago

Ty

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caroline l
caroline lordyesterday

thank you

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Ian Crory
Ian Croryyesterday

:)

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Carol S
Carol Syesterday

I only eat food with processed sugar on holidays in very small portions.

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Claudia S
Claudia S2 days ago

Thank you

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Ruth S
Ruth S2 days ago

Thanks.

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Mary T
Mary T2 days ago

thanks for sharing...love eating fermented foods

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Karen K
Karen K2 days ago

Not a fan of bitter foods, but then again, I don't love much sweets either.

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Kayla M
Kayla M3 days ago

Thanks!

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