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Nutrition for a healthy gut: prebiotics and probiotics

Posted May 16

Traditional diets such as the Mediterranean eating style or other traditional food patterns found throughout the world have been linked to health benefits such as lower levels of chronic diseases and even improved quality of life in older age.

These healthy eating patterns are typically plant-based and higher in fruits and vegetables, legumes and whole grains. They also include fish and seafood and more modest amounts of dairy and lean meats compared to a standard American diet.

In addition to being rich in nutrient-dense plant foods, many traditional eating patterns also include a variety of “gut-friendly” prebiotic and probiotic foods. This is not just about having a slimmer waistline. Eating closer to these dietary patterns is also about nourishing healthy gut bacteria known as the “gut microbiome” or “intestinal microflora.”

Current estimates suggest that gut bacteria are found in numbers comparable to the number of human cells in the body. In fact, there is a growing number of research studies that suggest that the strength and diversity of the gut flora has significant impact on health, including support for immune function, weight management, glycemic control and even potential benefits for mental health such as reduced risk for depression and anxiety.

So what types of foods are gut-friendly? Prebiotics and probiotics are two of the general names for compounds that are beneficial for gut health. Prebiotics are fuel for healthy bacteria, and probiotics are actual live cultures of beneficial bacteria similar to strains found in the human intestinal tract. Even better, when prebiotics and probiotics are consumed, they work together to support a healthy gut microbiome.

Prebiotics include a variety of natural non-digestible compounds found in foods such as inulin and fructo-oligosaccharides (FOS). When consumed they pass through the intestine undigested where beneficial bacteria can then use them in fermentation. For example, fermentation byproducts can support Bifidobacterium, a beneficial type of bacteria in the gut.

Given the role of prebiotics in supporting gut health, and the benefits of a healthy gut flora overall, it makes sense to include prebiotic food sources in a healthy diet. Sources of prebiotics include asparagus, leeks, onions, bananas, whole wheat, garlic, psyllium and chicory root. Chicory root is a concentrated source of the prebiotic fiber inulin that has a mild flavor and is therefore extracted and added to other food products to boost fiber content. It’s not necessary to consume foods supplemented with inulin though, and it’s possible that higher concentrations of inulin could cause GI discomfort for some people. Rather than supplementing, the benefits of inulin and other prebiotics can be obtained by eating a varied diet that includes prebiotic foods.

In addition to prebiotics, probiotics are another food component that consist of actual live colonies of beneficial bacteria that when consumed may help support a strong and diverse gut microflora. Probiotic foods were typically included in traditional eating patterns and can now be found in a variety of foods including yogurts and other fermented foods like the dairy beverage kefir, soy products such as miso or tempeh, and vegetable salads like kimchi or sauerkraut.

Increasingly, there are convenience food products containing probiotics, such as kombucha, a fermented tea beverage, available in stores today. As these probiotic products as well as probiotic supplements grow in popularity, it’s helpful to more closely examine their efficacy and consider how to avoid fads that aren’t worth the money. Given the breadth of this topic, probiotics will be covered further in a future blog post.

For those with digestive or GI issues looking for specific advice on how prebiotic and probiotic foods could help manage or improve symptoms, it’s a good idea to work with a health care provider such as a doctor or registered dietitian to review specific needs and create a personalized plan for treatment of health conditions.

Lastly, to support general gut health, try these easy tips to get more prebiotics and probiotics:

  • Top yogurt with one-half sliced banana or include banana in a fruit and yogurt smoothie.
  • Prep fresh or frozen asparagus by quickly chopping and sautéing in a small amount of olive oil and then enjoy as part of a main meal or a side dish.
  • Use onion and garlic as flavorings for favorite dishes along with herbs and spices instead of salt.
  • Enjoy a healthy and satisfying soup such as potato leek soup.
  • Swap white bread or other refined grain products for whole-wheat versions.
  • Try baked or grilled tempeh burgers with barbecue sauce as an alternative to traditional burgers.
  • Top hot or cold dishes with fermented vegetable salad to give color and a tangy bite to a variety of meals.

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