9 Foods that are Good for Your Gut

Your digestive tract is full of living organisms that help keep you healthy -- around 400 different types of beneficial bacteria and yeast strains cohabitate in your gastrointestinal system. There are several different kinds of foods and supplements that contain these beneficial bugs (probiotics) or help keep your gut flora functioning optimally (prebiotics).

Probiotics: Beneficial Bugs

Probiotics are beneficial bacteria or yeast strains that provide health benefits by crowding out harmful bacteria, boosting your intestinal health and strengthening your immune system. They are found in fermented foods and in supplement form. Here's how to incorporate these health-promoting bugs into your diet:
  • Yogurt: This is the most common probiotic food that you're probably already eating on a regular basis. Yogurt, as long as it is made with live and active cultures, delivers a tasty dose of Lactobacillus acidophilus and Streptococcus thermophilus to your system.
  • Kefir: This cultured milk drink is similar to yogurt but with a more drinkable consistency. Make sure the product you choose contains live cultures. Kefir also contains some helpful yeast strains.
  • Fermented vegetables: The most common fermented vegetable is sauerkraut. Most sauerkraut you find in grocery stores is pickled rather than fermented. However, certain brands are still made the old-fashioned way, which uses salt as a preservative that creates an environment that is inhospitable to bad bacteria but perfect for bacteria like Leuconostoc mesenteroides, Pediococcus pentosaceus, Lactobacillus brevis and Lactobacillus plantarum. Many DIYers are now making their own fermented food products at home. (Visit Cultures for Health to learn about many different types of fermented foods, along with complete instructions for fermenting vegetables at home.)
  • Olives: Olives that are preserved in brine contain similar strains of bacteria to other fermented vegetables like sauerkraut.
  • Miso: This fermented soy bean paste is used in Japanese cooking, most commonly to make a flavorful soup by the same name. Read the label carefully to make sure the miso still contains live cultures, and always add miso at the end of cooking time, as boiling kills the cultures.
  • Tempeh: Tempeh is another product made from fermented soy beans or other legumes. These beans are then pressed into a cake that can be sliced and sautéed to top salads, act as a sandwich filling or take the place of meat in many recipes.
  • Fermented soft cheeses: Cheeses like Gouda, Brie, bleu cheese and aged goat cheese can contain beneficial bacteria.
  • Kombucha: This fermented tea is made with a symbiotic culture of yeast and bacteria that eats the sugar from the tea mixture, leaving behind a slightly sour, bubbly drink.
  • Probiotic supplements: It is important to note that each type of friendly bacteria has a specific health benefit to the body. With more than 400 different types of probiotics identified, researchers are just starting to uncover the health roles and benefits of each. If you're thinking about using a probiotic supplement, talk to your doctor regarding the type of supplement to use based on your signs and symptoms. This will help ensure you are receiving the best treatment option available. Probiotic supplements are available in a variety of forms, such as freeze-dried powder, capsules, wafers and liquids. Take note of the storage information and expiration date.

Prebiotics: Food for Your Flora

Prebiotics are the "food" for the good bacteria that help them grow more strongly. A good prebiotic food substance does not digest in the stomach or small intestine, can be readily used by the bacteria once it reaches the large intestine and can only be used by the good bacteria (not the harmful ones).

While some prebiotics are found in familiar types of fiber, others are less common. However, all types of prebiotics are non-digestible food ingredients that stimulate the growth of good bacteria.  

The scientific names that are often used to identify prebiotics (and those you might see on some food labels) include:
  • Inulin
  • Fructo-oligosaccharides (FOS)
  • Galacto-oligosaccharides (GOS)
  • Xylo-oligosaccharides
  • Polydextrose
  • Arabinogalactan
  • Polyols--laculose, lactitol 
Different combinations of these prebiotics occur naturally in many plant-based foods, such as:
  • Leeks
  • Asparagus
  • Chicory
  • Jerusalem artichokes (also known as sunchokes)
  • Garlic
  • Artichokes
  • Bananas
  • Plums
  • Raisins
  • Onions
  • Wheat
  • Whole grains
  • Oats
  • Honey
  • Soybeans (called edamame when they're young)
It would take a large quantity of the above foods to exert a useful prebiotic effect in their natural state. Therefore, within today's food environment, a more realistic method involves fortifying popular foods with defined amounts of prebiotics. Inulin (a type of FOS) has been shown to be a very beneficial prebiotic. It is extracted from chicory root and added to foods and beverages, such as yogurts, cereals, breads, nutrition bars, ice creams and frozen desserts, spreads, drinks and fortified water. 
Although benefits associated with prebiotics and probiotics are favorable, researchers are cautious about drawing firm conclusions, as benefits vary depending on the type and amount of probiotic and prebiotic consumed. More human studies are needed to provide a better understanding of their direct effect on health. For now, consuming foods that add good bacteria to your body (with probiotics) and keeping those bacteria happy (with prebiotics) is a great way to obtain the health benefits.

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