Feed Your Flora: How Diet and Probiotics Influence Gut Health

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Imagine a lush tropical rain forest filled with a rich diversity of plant and animal life. This represents the complexity of the gut microbiome, a microscopic ecosystem residing in the digestive tract.  

Mostly made up of trillions of bacteria and other microbes, the majority of the immune system resides in the gut. Aside from strengthening immunity, a balanced microbiome has other far-reaching effects on overall well-being that scientists are only beginning to unravel. This promising new frontier in medicine is showing that the microbiome may influence factors such as body weight, mood, dental health and skin conditions, such as acne.   

Increased awareness of the relationship between diet and digestive health has consumers seeking probiotic-powered foods. Here’s what you need to know to make the best choices for nurturing your gut flora:

The dynamic duo: probiotics and prebiotics
Probiotics and prebiotics work together to promote digestive health. Simply put, prebiotics are power food for probiotics. Probiotics are the “good” bacteriac— live cultures that bolster the immune system by crowding out bacteria that can make us sick. Different strains of probiotics produce different health benefits, so variety is key.  

Prebiotics are certain fibers in food that resist digestion and get metabolized by probiotics. Probiotics rely on a steady fuel supply from prebiotics so they can flourish. Eating a variety of fiber-rich foods, including fruits and vegetables, helps to provide the prebiotics that keep your probiotic population happy and healthy.    

Top prebiotic sources include bananas, garlic, onions, leeks, artichokes, asparagus, whole grains and legumes, such as lentils, beans and peas. 

Separate health from hype
Many cultured or fermented foods such as yogurt, kefir, kimchi, miso and sauerkraut naturally contain probiotics. Be aware that probiotics are sensitive to temperature and lose their potency when removed from their original source and added into processed foods such as frozen yogurt, cereal, juice and energy bars. Therefore, processed foods that make probiotic claims may not be a good source of probiotics.

Sip the champagne of dairy
Cultured dairy products like yogurt and kefir reign supreme as the most potent probiotic sources. Kefir, known as the champagne of dairy because of its slight fizziness, is a low-lactose, creamy drink made by adding “kefir grains” to milk, resulting in a unique fermenting process. Kefir originated centuries ago in Eastern Europe, but only recently became commercialized in the U.S. While yogurt and kefir both contain beneficial bacteria, kefir hosts a more diverse population of probiotic strains. This means that kefir could offer added probiotic benefits, including certain strains that have been shown to help with lactose intolerance.    
 
Check the yogurt container
Check for the “Live and Active Cultures” seal on yogurt containers to ensure probiotic power. This seal was established by the National Yogurt Association to help consumers find yogurts that contain live cultures. Yogurts with “heat treated after culturing” on the label means the yogurt was pasteurized after the live probiotic strains were added, which deactivates the probiotics.   

Also check the “best used by” date and select yogurts stamped with the most recent date, as probiotic potency decreases with age. The freshest products in the grocery store are usually placed toward the back of the shelf.

Even plain yogurt contains naturally occurring sugar, but some flavored yogurts contain the amount of added sugar found in a candy bar. To decrease added sugar intake examine the food label and choose yogurts that have a protein to sugar ratio close to 1:1.

Choose whole foods over supplements
While there are quality probiotic supplements available, think twice before choosing a supplement over whole food sources of probiotics. The journey probiotic supplements make from the lab to the gut is long and full of variables, making the survival of the probiotic strains questionable. Foods that naturally contain live cultures are often the best and least expensive options for promoting balanced gut flora. Care for some kefir?
 

By: Kari Kooi

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