Probiotics: What You Need to Know
Annette Washington, MS, RDN, LDN
What are Probiotics?
When you hear the word probiotics, you might think of stomach health, but probiotics help so much more than that. Research shows that a probiotic-rich diet may help boost your immune system, protect your heart, improve your mental health and even help you lose weight. Let's take a deeper dive into these good bacteria, what they are and how to get them into our diets.
Probiotics are live bacteria or yeast found in fermented foods that are great for our overall health. Our body is covered with trillions of bacteria, inside and out! Yes, that's trillions with a T. These bacteria live in our digestive system and even on our skin. Sickness, obesity and poor digestion occur when these good bacteria get overrun with harmful bacteria. Including probiotics from a variety of food sources, from yogurt to kombucha, is the best way to keep our bodies healthy.
Yogurt is one of the first foods people think of when it comes to probiotics. Before you grab just any yogurt off the shelves, make sure you read the ingredients list. Not every yogurt has "live" or "active cultures." These cultures are what your body wants. Research also shows that the probiotics found in yogurt may even help with lactose intolerance. For even more nutritious benefits, choose yogurts with less than 10 grams of sugar and that are high in protein.
Sauerkraut is fermented cabbage. It can be red or green cabbage, and it can easily be homemade! You can use sauerkraut for more than just a Reuben sandwich, too. It is excellent in salads, on avocado toast, or even in smoothies (I promise it won't change the taste). Choose raw or unpasteurized, and avoiding heating it, because it will kill all those good probiotics that you are trying to get.
Another probiotic-rich, fermented cabbage is kimchi. It also contains Korean radishes and tons of spices, which add a little tang and a little heat. You can eat it raw, or you can add it to scrambled eggs, sandwiches, fried rice, or whatever your heart desires. An easy way to add more probiotics to your diet is to swap your pickles for this nutritious food.
Kombucha is a black or green tea that has been sweetened and fermented. The fermentation process adds millions of those good-for-you bacteria. Created in Northeast China, this tea contains probiotics and antioxidants, which is why this superdrink is becoming more accessible and easier to find. You can find many different flavors of kombucha at any local grocery store in the refrigerated section.
You may know that dark chocolate has some great health benefits (heart health, high in antioxidants). Because of the low processing temperatures, the probiotics in dark chocolate remain active! That's great news for chocolate lovers who want to satisfy that sweet tooth. Make sure you are choosing at least 70% cocoa and low amounts of sugar. Also, research shows that daily consumption, in small quantities, may even be the most helpful.
Food is the best way to get many different and diverse probiotic strains. However, supplements can be helpful when treating particular issues like irritable bowel syndrome because it allows you to choose specific bacteria strains. Talk to your doctor or dietitian before choosing supplements to ensure that you are getting the correct type and dose. The FDA does not regulate probiotic supplements, so be careful and do some research to make sure you choose a reputable source.
Having these probiotics in our bellies is fantastic, but we want to keep those little helpful bacteria soldiers fed! The best way to do this is to combine our probiotics with prebiotics. High-fiber foods are the best way to keep those bacteria happy and fighting off anything that comes their way. Some prebiotic foods include leeks, asparagus, green (unripe) bananas, oats, apples with skin, flaxseeds or even seaweed.
Diversify your diet and gut microbiome by adding a few of these probiotic foods to the mix. Don't forget to add some high-fiber prebiotics to make sure those probiotics stay well-fed and healthy to fight off diseases. When increasing fiber and prebiotics, make sure you are also drinking lots of water to help it move smoothly through your digestive system. If you experience any stomach or digestion issues, reduce your consumption of pro- and prebiotics to give your digestive system some rest.