How Vinegar Affects Digestion

So if vinegar doesn't actually contain all the substances that are supposed to account for its medicinal benefits, does that mean it has no healing powers? Hardly. As mentioned, so little research has been done on vinegar that we can't totally rule out many of the dramatic claims made for it. Although we know vinegar doesn't contain loads of nutrients traditionally associated with good health, it may well contain yet-to-be-identified phytochemicals (beneficial compounds in plants) that would account for some of the healing benefits that vinegar fans swear by. Scientists continue to discover such beneficial substances in all kinds of foods.

But beyond that possibility, there appear to be more tangible and realistic--albeit less sensational--ways that vinegar can help the body heal. Rather than being the dramatic blockbuster cure that we are endlessly (and fruitlessly) searching for, vinegar seems quite capable of playing myriad supporting roles--as part of an overall lifestyle approach--that can indeed help us fight serious health conditions, such as osteoporosis, diabetes, and heart disease.

Increasing Calcium Absorption

If there is one thing vinegar fans, marketers, alternative therapists, and scientists alike can agree on, it's that vinegar is high in acetic acid. And acetic acid, like other acids, can increase the body's absorption of important minerals from the foods we eat. Therefore, including apple cider vinegar in meals or possibly even drinking a mild tonic of vinegar and water (up to a tablespoon in a glass of water) just before or with meals might improve your body's ability to absorb the essential minerals locked in foods.

Vinegar is a condiment with many health benefits.
©2006 Publications International, Ltd.
Vinegar can help people absorb
calcium from their vegetables.

Vinegar may be especially useful to women, who generally have a hard time getting all the calcium their bodies need to keep bones strong and prevent the debilitating, bone-thinning disease osteoporosis. Although dietary calcium is most abundant in dairy products such as milk, many women (and men) suffer from a condition called lactose intolerance that makes it difficult or impossible for them to digest the sugar in milk. As a result, they may suffer uncomfortable gastrointestinal symptoms, such as cramping and diarrhea, when they consume dairy products. These women must often look elsewhere to fulfill their dietary calcium needs.

Dark, leafy greens are good sources of calcium, but some of these greens also contain compounds that inhibit calcium absorption. Fortunately for dairy-deprived women (and even those who do drink milk), a few splashes of vinegar or a tangy vinaigrette on their greens may very well allow them to absorb more valuable calcium. Don't you wish all medications were so tasty?

Controlling Blood Sugar Levels

Vinegar has recently won attention for its potential to help people with type 2 diabetes get a better handle on their disease. Improved control could help them delay or prevent such complications as blindness, impotence, and a loss of feeling in the extremities that may necessitate amputation. Also, because people with diabetes are at increased risk for other serious health problems, such as heart disease, improved control of their diabetes could potentially help to ward off these associated conditions, as well.

With type 2 diabetes, the body's cells become resistant to the action of the hormone insulin. The body normally releases insulin into the bloodstream in response to a meal. Insulin's job is to help the body's cells take in the glucose, or sugar, from the carbohydrates in food, so they can use it for energy. But when the body's cells become insulin resistant, the sugar from food begins to build up in the blood, even while the cells themselves are starving for it. (High levels of insulin tend to build up in the blood, too, because the body releases more and more insulin to try to transport the large amounts of sugar out of the bloodstream and into the cells.)

Over time, high levels of blood sugar can damage nerves throughout the body and otherwise cause irreversible harm. So one major goal of diabetes treatment is to normalize blood sugar levels and keep them in a healthier range as much as possible. And that's where vinegar appears to help.

It seems that vinegar may be able to inactivate some of the digestive enzymes that break the carbohydrates from food into sugar, thus slowing the absorption of sugar from a meal into the bloodstream. Slowing sugar absorption gives the insulin-resistant body more time to pull sugar out of the blood and thus helps prevent the blood sugar level from rising so high. Blunting the sudden jump in blood sugar that would usually occur after a meal also lessens the amount of insulin the body needs to release at one time to remove the sugar from the blood.

A study cited in 2004 in the American Diabetes Association's publication Diabetes Care indicates that vinegar holds real promise for helping people with diabetes. In the study, 21 people with either type 2 diabetes or insulin resistance (a prediabetes condition) and eight control subjects were each given a solution containing five teaspoons of vinegar, five teaspoons of water, and one teaspoon of saccharin two minutes before ingesting a high-carbohydrate meal. The blood sugar and insulin levels of the participants were measured before the meal and 30 minutes and 60 minutes after the meal.

Vinegar increased overall insulin sensitivity 34 percent in the study participants who were insulin-resistant and 19 percent in those with type 2 diabetes. That means their bodies actually became more receptive to insulin, allowing the hormone to do its job of getting sugar out of the blood and into the cells. Both blood sugar and blood insulin levels were lower than normal in the insulin-resistant participants, which is more good news. Surprisingly, the control group (who had neither diabetes nor a prediabetic condition but were given the vinegar solution) also experienced a reduction in insulin levels in the blood. These findings are significant because, in addition to the nerve damage caused by perpetually elevated blood sugar levels, several chronic conditions, including heart disease, have been linked to excess insulin in the blood over prolonged periods of time.

More studies certainly need to be done to confirm the extent of vinegar's benefits for type 2 diabetes patients and those at risk of developing this increasingly common disease. But for now, people with type 2 diabetes might be wise to talk with their doctors or dietitians about consuming more vinegar.

Replacing Unhealthy Fats and Sodium

As you'll discover in chapter four, there are some delicious varieties of vinegar available. Each bestows a different taste or character to foods. The diversity and intensity of flavor are key to one important healing role that vinegar can play. Whether you are trying to protect yourself from cardiovascular diseases, such as heart disease, high blood pressure, or stroke, or you have been diagnosed with one or more of these conditions and have been advised to clean up your diet, vinegar should become a regular cooking and dining companion. That's because a tasty vinegar can often be used in place of sodium and/or ingredients high in saturated or trans fats to add flavor and excitement to a variety of dishes.

Vinegar is a condiment with many health benefits.
©2006 Publications International, Ltd.
Adding vinegar to vegetables tastes great and actually
makes them healthier, unlike some other condiments.

Saturated and trans fats have been shown to have a detrimental effect on blood cholesterol levels, and experts recommend that people who have or are at risk of developing high blood pressure cut back on the amount of sodium they consume. So using vinegar as a simple, flavorful substitute for these less healthful ingredients as often as possible can help people manage blood cholesterol and blood pressure levels and, in turn, help ward off heart disease and stroke.

You'll find detailed advice about including more vinegar in your diet in chapter four, and you'll discover delicious, good-for-you recipes at the end of the book that put vinegar to use. But the following suggestions will give you some sense of how vinegar can help you create and enjoy a diet that may lower your blood cholesterol and blood pressure and decrease your risks of heart disease and stroke:
  • Make a vinegar-based coleslaw rather than a creamy, mayonnaise-based one. Because mayonnaise is made up almost completely of unhealthy fats and cholesterol, this easy switch can dramatically reduce the cholesterol and fat in this popular side dish.

  • Enjoy healthier fish and chips. Instead of dipping fish in tartar sauce and drenching fries in salt and ketchup, splash them with a little malt vinegar. (Also consider baking the fish and the potatoes instead of frying them.) Because it contains mayonnaise, tartar sauce is high in unhealthy fats and cholesterol.

  • Use vinegar-based salad dressings instead of creamy,mayonnaise-based dressings. Choose or make a flavorful herb salad dressing that contains mostly water, vinegar, and just a touch of oil to help it adhere to your salad veggies.

  • Opt for vinegar instead of mayonnaise or other common, bad-fat-laden sandwich spreads to add flavor and moisture to sandwiches.

  • When making a dish that contains beans, add a little vinegar near the end of cooking--it will dramatically decrease the amount of salt you'll need. It perks up the flavor of beans without raising your blood pressure.

  • You can also use vinegar as a tangy marinade for tenderizing less-fatty cuts of meat. Choosing meat with less fat on the edges and less marbling within is one of the easiest ways to trim unhealthy fats from your diet. Unfortunately, meats that don't have as much marbling tend to be a little tougher. So vinegar can do double duty by adding a dash of zing as it tenderizes.
Making a Healthy Diet Easier to Swallow

Some of our strongest natural weapons against cancer and aging are fruits and vegetables. The antioxidants and phytochemicals they contain seem to hold real promise in lowering our risk of many types of cancer. Their antioxidants also help to protect cells from the free-radical damage that is thought to underlie many of the changes we associate with aging. Protected cells don't wear out and need replacing as often as cells that aren't bathed in antioxidants. Scientists think this continual cell replacement may be at the root of aging.
  • The U.S. government's 2005 Dietary Guidelines recommend that the average person eat about two cups of fruit and two-and-a-half cups of vegetables every day. One way to add excitement and variety to all those vegetables is to use vinegar liberally as a seasoning.

  • Rice vinegar and a little soy sauce give veggies an Asian flavor or can form the base of an Asian coleslaw.

  • Red wine vinegar or white wine vinegar can turn boring vegetables into a quick-and-easy marinated-vegetable salad that's ready to grab out of the refrigerator whenever hunger strikes. Just chop your favorite veggies, put them in a bowl with a marinade of vinegar, herbs, and a dash of olive oil, and let them sit for at least an hour. (You don't need much oil to make the marinade stick to the veggies, so go light, and be sure you choose olive oil.)

  • Toss chopped vegetables in a vinegar-and-olive-oil salad dressing before loading them on skewers and putting them on the backyard grill. The aroma and flavor will actually have your family asking for seconds -- of vegetables!

  • After steaming vegetables, drizzle a little of your favorite vinegar over them instead of adding butter or salt. They'll taste so good, you may never get to the meat on your plate.
By enhancing the flavor of vegetables with vinegar, you and your family will be inclined to eat more of them. And that--many researchers and doctors would agree--will likely go a long way toward protecting your body's cells from the damage that can lead to cancer and other problems of aging.

Removing Harmful Substances from Produce

Some people are concerned that eating large amounts of fruits and vegetables may lead to an unhealthy consumption of pesticide and other farm-chemical residues. Vinegar can lend a hand here, too. Washing produce in a mixture of water and vinegar appears to help remove certain pesticides, according to the small amount of research that has been published. Vinegar also appears to be helpful in getting rid of harmful bacteria on fruits and vegetables.

To help remove potentially harmful residues, mix a solution of 10 percent vinegar to 90 percent water (for example, mix one cup of white vinegar in nine cups of water). Then, place produce in the vinegar solution, let it soak briefly, and then swish it around in the solution. Finally, rinse the produce thoroughly.

Do not use this process on tender, fragile fruits, such as berries, that might be damaged in the process or soak up too much vinegar through their porous skins.

Some pesticide residues are trapped beneath the waxy coatings that are applied to certain vegetables to help them retain moisture. The vinegar solution probably won't wash those pesticides away, so peeling lightly may be the next best option. Some research suggests that cooking further eliminates some pesticide residue.

Add Flavor, Not Calories

Vinegar contains very few calories--only 25 in half a cup! Compare that to the nearly 800 calories you get in half a cup of mayonnaise, and you have a real fat-fighting food. So if you're looking to lose weight, using vinegar in place of mayonnaise whenever you can will help you make a serious dent in your calorie (and fat) intake.

Vinegar can also help you have your dessert and cut calories, too. Use a splash of balsamic vinegar to bring out the sweetness and flavor of strawberries without any added sugar. Try it on other fruits that you might sprinkle sugar on--you'll be pleasantly surprised at the difference a bit of balsamic vinegar can make. And for a real unexpected treat on a hot summer evening, drizzle balsamic vinegar--instead of high-fat, sugary caramel or chocolate sauce--on a dish of reduced-fat vanilla ice cream. Can't imagine that combination? Just try it.

The Sour That's Really Sweet

Obviously, much more research needs to be done to investigate all of vinegar's healing potential. But even with the evidence available, it's clear that vinegar holds some healing powers. It is not a too-good-to-be-true miracle cure, but it can be used in a variety of ways to enhance your efforts to fight serious, chronic diseases (and as noted in the box on pages 75 and 76, it may lend a healing hand against some common, minor discomforts).

In that sense, vinegar is like many of the other lifestyle adjustments, drugs, and therapies used in our battles against common, chronic, and often life-threatening diseases: It is just one of a variety of important steps that can help us defend ourselves. But unlike many of the other elements that go into treating or preventing disease, vinegar is one you'll certainly enjoy incorporating into your life.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR:

Gayle Povis Alleman, M.S., R.D. is a registered dietitian with a bachelor's degree in traditional nutrition from Western Washington University and a master's degree in alternative nutrition from Bastyr University. This varied background allows her to bring together the best of both approaches to offer research-based, holistic information about wholesome foods, nutrition, and health. As a writer, educator, and speaker, she encourages people to achieve optimum health through food, nutrients, and physical activity.

This information is solely for informational purposes. IT IS NOT INTENDED TO PROVIDE MEDICAL ADVICE. Neither the Editors of Consumer Guide (R), Publications International, Ltd., the author nor publisher take responsibility for any possible consequences from any treatment, procedure, exercise, dietary modification, action or application of medication which results from reading or following the information contained in this information. The publication of this information does not constitute the practice of medicine, and this information does not replace the advice of your physician or other health care provider. Before undertaking any course of treatment, the reader must seek the advice of their physician or other health care provider.