You’ve probably heard about prebiotics and probiotics, but do you know what they are and what they do? They are all a part of gut health, connected to everything from chronic health issues like irritable bowel syndrome, depression and immunity, as well as general well-being. You might be wondering how gut-healthy your own eating pattern is. Learn more about this very hot topic here.
But first, a quick primer on the difference between prebiotics and probiotics.
Probiotics are live microorganisms that mimic good bacteria in the digestive tract. This means that they help to replenish or change beneficial bacteria while crowding out the bad in the gut. Prebiotics are a type of naturally occurring, non-digestible carbohydrates. They are the preferred source of nourishment for beneficial bacteria. In addition to supporting a healthy gut, prebiotics may also enhance the absorption of calcium.
While both prebiotics and probiotics are available in supplement form, using special (and often expensive) pills, drinks, cleanses, etc. isn’t necessary. If you love kombucha (store bought or homemade) that’s fine. But if kombucha isn’t your thing, nourishing your gut can be easily accomplished with a variety of everyday natural food sources and plenty of water into your routine. These 5 gut-health supporting foods were selected because of their ease of use, affordability and the fact they’re probably in your pantry or fridge right now.
It’s hard to find a food as gut friendly as oats and don’t we all have a canister in the pantry? As a source of prebiotic fiber, called beta glucan, oats pass through the body to the digestive tract where they are a preferred type of food for the bacteria. For optimal benefits, choose old-fashioned or steel cut oats and dress them up on your own, instead of instant packets or microwaveable cups that often contain added sugar and sodium.
Try it: Eat overnight oats for breakfast, sprinkle dry oats over yogurt parfaits and use oats instead of breadcrumbs when making recipes that require them for a binder, i.e. meatballs, meatloaf or burgers.
Yes, this may be an obvious one but it’s still worth calling out. Yogurt is made by adding lactic acid-producing cultures to milk which results in naturally occurring probiotics. Because heat processing can destroy these active probiotic cultures, it’s best to look for ‘live’ or ‘active’ cultures on the label. Pay particular attention to these claims on plant-based, non-dairy yogurts as well. Also, seek out the brands that have the lowest amount of added sugar and remember that dairy-based yogurt contains naturally occurring milk sugar (lactose) which will be reflected in the total sugar number on the nutrition facts panel.
Try it: Enjoy a cup of plain yogurt or one that’s low in added sugar per day. For an added boost of prebiotic fiber, sprinkle berries and almonds, pistachios, or cashews on top.
Experts recommend eating a varied diet to optimize overall nutritional intake and this also applies to the health of your gut. Like oats, green, underripe bananas supply resistant starch, a type of prebiotic fiber that nourishes the ‘good’ bacteria in your gut. When ripe, bananas are a source of fructooligosaccharides (FOS), yet another prebiotic. Bananas sometimes have a bad reputation because they are higher in carbohydrates and natural sugar than other fruit. The truth is that this highly nutritious and easy to love fruit contributes in a big way to gut health.
Try it: Eat a ripe or slightly green banana a day on its own or slice and use to top oatmeal, fiber-rich cold cereal, whole-grain toast or yogurt.
While not all cheeses are a natural source of probiotics, some are. Aged cheeses, including Parmesan, Swiss, cheddar and Gouda, are good sources of probiotics. Like yogurt, they contain live cultures such as bifidobacteria and lactobacilli that support the beneficial bacteria. These balance the gut’s bacteria environment. While you may be tempted to over-indulge in the name of a healthy gut, overdoing it may have the opposite affect and result in GI distress.
Try it: When using cheese in a recipe or on a cheese platter, choose these varieties over others and serve with whole-grain crackers, fruits and veggies.
If you aren’t regularly enjoying this asparagus, you’re missing out. This veggie contains a type of prebiotic fiber called inulin that’s feeds the good gut bacteria. Asparagus provides 4 grams of such fiber per cup.
Try it: Asparagus is an easy addition to salads in its raw form. Also or prepare in the oven or on the grill for a more tender texture and smoky flavor.
While these foods contribute key prebiotics and/or probiotics that are connected to a healthy gut, they are just one piece of the puzzle. The current recommendation for daily fiber intake is a minimum of 25 grams per day for women and 38 grams per day for men. Like probiotics and prebiotics, you can take a daily fiber supplement to meet this target. However, there’s far more nutrient density and health perks that come from the “food first” approach. When adding more fiber-rich foods to your diet, always introduce them gradually and drink plenty of water to feel your best and minimize bloating, gas or constipation.
Beth Stark is a registered dietitian nutritionist and nutrition communications consultant based in Pa. She’s also written about Gut Health She’s also written about Gut Health Focus: Low FODMAP Diet.