When was the last time you thought about the bacteria in your stomach? Probably the last time you came down with a case of food poisoning, right? Well, it’s time to start thinking about what’s going on in your gut more often. That’s because science is unlocking secrets about the powerful connection between the health of the bacteria in your digestive system and your general health.
Good news: If you follow a few simple rules, you can boost your good bacteria (also called probiotics), which may lead to a stronger immune system, a trimmer waistline and improved digestion.
Don’t worry, learning about probiotics is way more fun than coming down with food poisoning.
What Are Probiotics and How Do They Work?
Think of your digestive system as a game of checkers. Let’s say you’re playing as the black pieces. Those pieces are the good guys. The red pieces, by default, are the bad guys. And so greater the number of black pieces and the fewer the number of red pieces on the board, the greater the chance you have of pulling off a win.
The same goes for your digestive health. Probiotics, or beneficial bacteria, are the good guys. The more you have—and the less bad bacteria you have—the more likely you might be to have success with weight loss, digestive issues and other health problems.
You’re probably most familiar with probiotics because of yogurt. Bacteria helps yogurt ferment, giving it that slightly sour yet pleasant taste. Though there are numerous types of probiotics (bifidobacteria, saccharomyces boulardii, bacillus coagulans and other fun names), yogurt manufacturers commonly use the lactobacillus strain in production.
That said, yogurt isn’t the only game in town when it comes to foods with good sources of the beneficial bacteria. Here are some more probiotic foods you may not know.
6 Best Probiotic Foods
Okay, okay, so it’s also referred to as “drinkable yogurt,” but you should include this probiotic-loaded beverage in your diet even if you already eat yogurt. First off, you don’t need a spoon to consume it, and it’s a great base for shakes and smoothies (just substitute it for milk). Second, like milk and yogurt, it’s also a good source of calcium and protein. Oh, and look for unsweetened varieties. “Some kefirs are super high in sugar, so choose one with as little sugar as possible,” says Abby Langer, a registered dietitian and owner of Abby Langer Nutrition in Toronto. “Also, choose one with a high probiotic count—the highest one you can find.”
This fermented Korean condiment is made from cabbage and can contain ginger, garlic, chile peppers, radishes and other ingredients. Some varieties are spicier than others, but you’ll always taste a tanginess, which comes from the fermentation. Kimchi may help contribute to weight loss and delay the effects of aging, the latter likely due to its antioxidant properties, according to a 2016 study published in the journal Frontiers in Microbiology (1). Try some chopped and scrambled into eggs or atop steak tacos.
Like kimchi, this condiment also derives its probiotic powers from fermented cabbage. It’s important, however, that you’re eating real-deal sauerkraut, not the shelf-stable supermarket kind in a can. “Unfortunately, the pasteurization process kills off good bacteria,” Langer says. “Try to find fresh sauerkraut. It’s usually sold in delis.” Yes, kraut is great with bratwurst, but it also works well with the flavors of lighter dishes, such as roasted turkey wraps, grilled chicken or homemade coleslaw. Bonus: Two tablespoons of the stuff contain only five calories.
This bubbly, buzz-worthy drink is technically a fermented tea that’s made with probiotic strains of bacteria and yeasts. Sounds gross? The flavor is actually mellower than you might think and, when chilled, it’s refreshing. The antioxidants within kombucha may have the ability to fight bad bacteria, according to a 2016 lab study published by Indian researchers (2), though more research is needed to prove an effect in humans.
You know this stuff as the primary flavoring to miso soup, but the fermented (seeing a trend here?) soybean paste tastes great in other dishes too. One warning: “If you add it to boiling water, the heat will destroy the good bacteria. Instead, let the water cool a bit before adding the miso if you’re making soup, or use miso paste in salad dressings and other cold sauces,” Langer says. Not only does miso contain probiotics, but soy products in general may help battle diabetes. Study participants who took in more isoflavones, a compound found in miso, tofu and soy milk, had an 11 percent less risk of Type 2 diabetes than participants who ate little, found a 2016 Harvard study (3).
If you think you’re the master of all things fermented foods, if you believe that there’s no funky-tasting flavor you can’t handle, well, then natto is for you. This fermented bean dish looks a little like it’s been covered in stringy snot and smells a lot like stinky feet. It’s loaded with probiotics, but it’s most definitely an acquired taste.
Aside from fermented foods, probiotics can also be found these days in packaged snacks like granola, popcorn and chocolate, as well as in beverages like sparkling water and tea. Unless the probiotic quantity is listed on the nutrition label, however, it’s difficult to determine the potential health benefits of probiotic-enhanced foods and drinks. Probiotic supplements and foods naturally rich in probiotics are likely a surer bet.
Other surprising places probiotics are popping up include face creams, body lotions and deodorants. While there is evidence that probiotic-enhanced skincare products can help restore balance and promote the growth of good bacteria on the skin, the jury is still out on the benefits of probiotic deodorants.
When Should You Take Probiotic Supplements?
The study of probiotics is still evolving in the scientific community, and you won’t find a daily recommended value on your cup of yogurt any time soon either. So until researchers have a better understanding of these beneficial bacteria, don’t put your digestive system under duress eating mounds of fermented foods. Just try to eat a little more. All the foods above aren’t just great sources of probiotics, they’re also just generally great for you.
That said, if you’re suffering from digestive issues, need additional help losing weight or are worried about your immune system, the topic of taking a probiotic supplement may come up. Before doing so, please check with your doctor before purchasing any product. The FDA has not approved any probiotics for preventing or treating any health problem, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. And, because there are so many different strains of even the same type of bacteria, it’s tough to tell which supplements are most effective.
“Because probiotics work beyond the stomach, you also want to ensure that the probiotic you choose has been formulated to survive the acidic environment of the stomach so they make it to the right location in the gut to have an effect,” says Langer.
Your doctor will know best.
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