We are covered in bacteria-inside and outside of our body. Even though bacteria sounds bad, some of it is beneficial and we need it to live. Recent research has taught us more about bacteria in the gut, also called the gut microbiome, and how it relates to our overall health. Probiotics are the good guys, the beneficial bacteria (and some yeasts) found in your digestive system.
The benefits of probiotics include improved immune system, decreased inflammation, decreased cholesterol, increased nutrient absorption, reduced symptoms of lactose intolerance, and treatment for diarrhea. Probiotics may help with glucose control. Probiotics decrease insulin resistance and increase beneficial gut hormones such as glucagon-like peptide-1 (GLP-1).
There are no general guidelines for how much or what type of probiotics you should consume. This is partially because we all have different bacteria in our gut, so we respond differently to probiotics. Probiotics come from food or supplements. I believe it’s important to get nutrients from food first before taking a supplement. Probiotic-containing foods are fermented. Fermentation is when bacteria or yeast convert carbohydrate into acid or alcohol. Unfortunately, not all fermented foods contain probiotics, so don’t get excited about sourdough bread, soy sauce, or alcohol. When shopping for fermented foods, look for products that state “live and active cultures” on the label. Shop in the refrigerated section because heat kills these friendly bacteria.
If you are ready to increase your intake of probiotics, try some of these foods:
- Yogurt is fermented milk and is the most commonly consumed probiotic food. Probiotic levels vary with different yogurts. Food labels are not required to list the number of probiotics, but some do. Read labels and do some research for the number of probiotics if you are looking to increase your overall intake. Remember to look for yogurts that are lower in sugar.
- Kefir is a drinkable yogurt and usually contains more probiotics than yogurt. Try it as a drink or in smoothies. Kefir is often sweetened so it’s also good to look for one that is lower in sugar.
- Sauerkraut and kimchi are fermented cabbage. Kimchi often includes other fermented vegetables. Think about adding sauerkraut or kimchi to meat, eggs, sandwiches, or salads.
- Kombucha is fermented black or green tea originating from China. It has some added sugar and due to fermentation, it’s carbonated and contains a small amount of alcohol.
- Miso is a bean paste usually made from fermented soybeans. It’s salty and provides that umami or savory flavor. Try miso in soups, salad dressings, marinades, and vegetables. Try not to heat miso as it could kill the beneficial bacteria.
If you are up for the challenge you can make some of these foods at home. There are foods that have added probiotics such as cereal, bars, nuts, and chips. But, probiotic-added foods aren’t equal to probiotic-containing foods with their benefits.
If you are just starting out with probiotics, there can be some side effects including constipation or GI upset. It’s true that some strains of probiotics that are associated with improving certain health conditions. Talk with your health care provider before taking a probiotic supplement due to GI issues or drug interactions. A good place to start is to include a probiotic-containing food in your daily diet. To learn more about probiotics check out the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health.
by Christine McKinney, RD LDN CDE
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