Our bodies are filled with bacteria! These little “bugs” can be both helpful and harmful. The food we eat, our health, the environment around us and the medicine we take impacts the balance of bacteria in our gut. Humans thrive when good gut bacteria are supported.
When we are born, the gut is sterile, no little bugs in residence. Overtime, a diverse collection of bacteria grows. The bacteria in our gut supports digestion and the metabolism of food, makes vitamins and other nutrients, protects the body via the immune system and produce hundreds of neurochemicals that influence memory, learning and mood. There is a steady stream of new research linking gut bacteria to health.
So, now you have the basic picture: not all bacteria are bad. In fact, thousands of species of good bacteria live in the gut and significantly influence our daily life. The question is, what role do we play? Well, we can support our system by introducing lots of good bacteria and the food they need to thrive by increasing foods that contain prebiotics (support for the good bugs), eating fermented foods rich in probiotics (good bacteria) and possibly taking a probiotic supplement when needed.
Prebiotics are like the dirt in your garden, without rich soil our plants and probiotics won’t grow. Prebiotics are indigestible plant fibers that come from nutrient-dense veggie powerhouses. Eat several servings of raw and cooked prebiotics each day.
Probiotics are live microorganisms that benefit human health. Probiotics can be found in fermented foods and supplements. Food sources of these good bugs are inexpensive, safe and flavorful. For general health, I recommend working up to 2-3 servings per day as a part of a healthy lifestyle. Checkout the list below for ideas!
Fermented foods have a very unique flavor, as with any condiment or food, start with a small serving and increase. Also, remember that our taste buds evolve with age, so just because you didn’t like something as a child doesn’t mean you shouldn’t give it another try. Avoid pasteurized products or cooking with these foods as the heating process kills the living bacteria.
- Sauerkraut, traditionally made ‘kraut is a crunchy, salty condiment that can take a salad or burger from basic to wow in just 2 tablespoons! If you purchase your kraut, look for raw/live products in the refrigerator section of your grocery, health food store or Farmers Market.
- Kimchi is a traditional Korean ferment typically made with cabbage, ginger, garlic, onion and other spices. No two kimchis are alike.
- Yogurt is probably the most recognized probiotic rich food. Look for a plain yogurt with active bacteria listed in the ingredients. Add your own flavor with jam, honey or diced fruit. Yogurt can aslo be used as a savory condiment.
- Easy Tzatziki is my all-time favorite yogurt condiments! Super easy to put together, it adds a high note to most savory meals. Try tzatziki on a wrap, burger, salad or fish dish.
- Green Goddess Dip and Dressing made with yogurt.
- DIY: checkout these various starters, recipes and tips from Cultures for Health
- Kefir is quite simply a tangy, yogurt-like drink. Opt for the plain version when purchasing and add your own flavor, the fruity kefirs available in the store tend to be very high in sugar.
- DIY: Make kefir at home in just a few days.
- Coconut Kefir is great for those who avoid dairy or desire a different flavor. You can purchase coconut Kefir locally at Farmers Markets or make your own.
- Water Kefir is a carbonated, lacto-fermented beverage that you can flavor a billion different ways!! Essentially a homemade soda with friendly bacteria. You can find water kefir in some stores around town or you can make this on your own in 24-48 hours.
- Miso is often associated with the comforting bowl of soup served at the start of a meal in a Japanese restaurant. But, miso has so many other tasty uses! Miso is simply fermented soy beans and has been around for thousands of years. In addition to lots of probiotics, miso is rich in B vitamins and minerals. I encourage you to purchase organic, non-GMO miso paste.
Support optimal health by including prebiotic and probiotic rich foods in your daily meals. As always, aim for variety!
Sherrill Collins, MS, RDN