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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 that co-habitate 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. 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, however, is pickled rather than fermented, but 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 CulturesforHealth.com 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. Beyond soup, there are lots of ways to enjoy miso. Check out these recipes!
  • 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. Learn more about cooking with tempeh.
  • 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 assure that 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 that 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--Try cooking with leeks.
  • Asparagus--Discover new asparagus recipes.
  • Chicory--You can actually cook with this unusual root
  • Jersusalm artichokes--Also known as the sunchoke, this root veggie is delicious in many recipes.
  • Garlic--Discover why you should be adding more garlic to your cooking.
  • Artichokes
  • Bananas
  • Plums
  • Raisins
  • Onions--Lean more about what makes onions such a healthy vegetable.
  • Wheat
  • Whole grains--Discover easy ways to add more whole grains to your diet.
  • Oats--Find new ways to enjoy this healthy breakfast treat.
  • Honey--Learn why honey is a sweet choice you can feel good about.
  • Soybeans--Called edamame when they're young, these delicious beans are super versatile. 
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) found in chicory root (the best natural source) has been found 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 because benefits vary, depending on type and amount of probiotic and prebiotic consumed. More human studies need to be done 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 once they're there (with prebiotics) is a great way to obtain the health benefit.

This article has been reviewed and approved by Becky Hand, M.Ed., Licensed and Registered Dietitian. 

J. Bautista-Gallego, F.N. Arroyo-Lopez, K. Rantsious, R. Jimenez-Diaz, A. Garrido-
Fernandez, L. Cocolin. "Screening of lactic acid bacteria isolated from fermented table olives with probiotic potential." Food Research International. Volume 50, Issue 1, January 2013, Pages 135-142.

Med-Chemist, "Apple Pectin as a Novel Prebiotic Substance," www.med-chemist.com, accessed on November 26, 2013.

Nutra Ingredients, "Honey Carbohydrates have Prebiotic Properties," www.nutraingredients.com, accessed on November 27, 2013.

Probiotics Now, "Yummy Prebiotics List," www.probioticsnow.com, accessed on November 27, 2013.

The World's Healthiest Foods, "What are Some of the Best Food Sources for Probiotics and Prebiotics," www.whfoods.org, accessed on November 26, 2013.

Today's Dietitian, "Fermented Foods--Are They the Next Big Nutrition Trend?" www.todaysdietitian.com, accessed on December 3, 2013.

University of Missouri Extension, "Probiotics and Prebiotics," extension.missouri.edu, accessed on November 26, 2013.

WebMD, "Probiotics," www.webmd.com, accessed on November 26, 2013.

WebMD, "5 Things You Should Know about Probiotic Products," www.webmd.com, accessed on November 26, 2013.

WebMD, "The Best Ways to Use Probiotics," www.webmd.com, accessed on November 26, 2013.

WebMD, "The Truth about Probiotics and Your Gut," www.webmd.com, accessed on November 26, 2013.
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Member Comments

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I've been following the research in the gut biome with interest. I participated in a webinar that discussed this as it relates to Multiple Sclerosis. The science is fascinating. The research is in its infancy. They know that there are some bacteria that are helpful and some that are harmful and are in the process of determining exactly which ones need to be destroyed and which ones need to fed. Great stuff.

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About The Author

Megan Patrick
Megan Patrick
Megan Lane Patrick has been a professional writer and editor for the past 16 years, and was a chronic dieter for at least 30. A combination of weight-loss surgery, mindful eating and daily exercise finally allowed her to maintain a weight loss of more than 100 pounds. When she's not lifting weights at the gym, you can find her walking shelter dogs as a volunteer for the SPCA.