You’ve probably heard a lot about gut health and the microbiome – the collection of bacteria and other microorganisms that live in our gut. Science is now starting to understand the importance of multiplying the good bacteria in our gut, which help with decreasing inflammation and improving our overall health.
Our microbiome requires nurturing and depends on us to maintain a healthy lifestyle. The first step is eating a healthful diet with a variety of prebiotic and probiotic foods. It’s essential to our gut health!
Let’s talk about prebiotic foods. Prebiotic foods contain certain types of soluble fiber. Interestingly, the good bacterium in our lower digestive tract loves soluble fiber. They ferment it, which helps them thrive.
This soluble fiber includes inulin, oligosaccharides, pectin, beta-glucans, and resistant starch. They are all naturally occurring in plant foods, but some are processed into concentrates, and then added to foods during manufacturing.
Beta-glucans are high in oats and barley. A popular and easy breakfast is overnight oats, where oats are soaked overnight and then eaten chilled the next morning. You can read more in my book titled: Beyond the Mediterranean Diet: European Secrets Of The Super-Healthy, about how the Swiss named overnight oats Bircher Meusli in the early 1900s after the Swiss Doctor Bircher-Benner.
Inulin and oligosaccharides are soluble fibers found high in onions, chicory root, asparagus, and Jerusalem artichokes. My favorite Italian dark chocolate is made with less sugar and has added chicory root. Chicory root is also sold as a coffee alternative. Certain brands of yogurt now have added inulin. It’s important to read ingredient labels to know what’s in the foods you are buying. If you don’t understand an ingredient, don’t buy it. Avoid ultra-processed foods that have added sugar, salt, fat, and artificial colors, or preservatives.
Pectin is another type of fiber found in apples, berries, and other fruits. I am sure you’ve seen pectin as an ingredient in jams. Seaweed acts in a similar way in our gut.
Resistant starch, also a fiber, is found in legumes, slightly unripe bananas, cooked and cooled pasta and potatoes and “al dente” pasta, which means tender but firm “to the tooth”. Al dente whole wheat pasta contains insoluble fiber from the whole grain in addition to the soluble fermentable fiber called resistant starch.
Keep in mind that individuals with irritable bowel syndrome can feel bloated and often cannot tolerate certain soluble fibers, especially in the classification of inulin and oligosaccharides.
You only need a small amount of fiber from these foods – 3 to 5 grams – to get the benefit. It’s always important to gradually add these foods into your diet and drink plenty of water while doing so.
While your gut needs these prebiotics, they also need probiotics. Probiotics contain helpful bacteria and can replenish your gut microbiome if they have enough prebiotics to ferment.
Foods that are considered probiotic undergo a process called lactic acid fermentation – the live bacteria they contain, called lactobacillus, helps preserve them and imparts a tangy flavor. These foods include raw (unheated) sauerkraut and kimchi, certain types of pickled vegetables, and yogurt and kefir made with live and active cultures. You can also find cultured cottage cheese and labneh in the supermarket. Certain cheeses that are aged but not heated such as gouda, cheddar and Gruyere may also contain probiotics.
Tempeh, a fermented soybean product is well known in the macrobiotic diet. Miso paste, a staple in Japanese cooking is also made from fermented soybeans. Kombucha, a fermented tea has become a rising star in the beverage category.
Be aware that fermented foods can be high in sodium so read the Nutrition Facts label. A good rule of thumb is 1 to 1, calories to sodium. If a food has 100 calories per serving, then sodium should be around 100 mg or less.
Some fermented foods, such as sourdough bread and most commercial pickles, are ultra-processed and heated to high temperatures after they are fermented. This processing destroys the live bacteria. Look for live and active cultures on the label. Some brands are labeled with CFU, which estimates the number of living microbial cells in a sample. There are no current FDA labeling regulations, and it is difficult to assess the accuracy of those numbers since conditions can change by the time of consumption.
You may be tempted to buy a probiotic supplement, but food is still the best way to get these helpful bacteria into your gut. Probiotic supplements are unregulated. Plus, improper storage can result in the degradation of the bacterium.
There are other components in plant foods like polyphenols that play a role in keeping our good bacteria healthy and happy. Besides my favorite– freshly pressed extra virgin olive oil– polyphenols are also concentrated in various spices and dried herbs, cocoa products, some darkly colored berries, some seeds and nuts and some vegetables.
You don’t have to like every food we’ve talked about, but if you add some of these to your daily diet, they can help improve your gut health. Keeping a powerful army of good bacterium in our gut is a proactive way to maintaining good health and preventing disease.