Does it feel like you can’t eat anything without experiencing bloating, constipation, or an upset stomach? These days, it seems like nearly everyone I know struggles with IBS, lactose intolerance, or another digestive issue. One solution, say doctors and nutritionists, is adding fermented foods to your diet. Why? Because they nourish and cultivate beneficial bacteria in your gut microbiome.
Keep reading for answers to all your questions about fermented foods, as well as six of the best ways to add prebiotics and probiotics to your meal prep.
What are fermented foods?
If you’ve ever considered taking a probiotic, you likely know a little bit about fermented foods (even if you don’t realize it). Fermented foods are foods that have been broken down by bacteria and yeast. This process both preserves food and amplifies their health benefits by developing active cultures (a.k.a. probiotics) that support your gut microbiota. It might sound a little yucky, but it’s actually very healthy. (There’s a reason so many people take probiotic supplements!) These friendly bacteria can boost immunity, beat bloat, and even aid with weight loss.
Common fermented foods include:
- Sourdough bread
- Japanese kimchi
- Miso soup
- Some forms of soy sauce
- Lacto-fermented dairy products like kefir
- Pickled vegetables like cucumbers, radishes, and other veggies
- Some types of cheese
However, not all fermented foods contain beneficial microbes. For example, processed milk products like certain cheeses and yogurts, do not contain these good bacteria, and there are no live probiotics in pickles made with vinegar. If you’re standing in the grocery aisle trying to determine if something contains probiotics, check the label: If it contains “active” or “live” cultures, you’re good to go.
What are the health benefits of fermented foods?
One of the most exciting fields of research right now is the science of the gut microbiome, the 100 trillion-ish bacteria living in your digestive tract. Scientists are still working to fully understand just how your gut microbiome impacts the rest of your body, but the researchers at Harvard Medical School are beginning to link the health of these tiny creatures to everything from cognitive disorders to obesity. One of the best ways to support your gut health is by consuming fermented foods, such as kefir or kombucha.
While the science is new, it’s very promising. One study found that consuming fermented foods consistently for ten weeks reduced the amount of inflammatory proteins observed in trial participants. This included proteins linked to things like chronic stress and endocrine conditions. By supporting a healthy gut microbiome, you’re also supporting a robust immune system, sufficient vitamin production, and pain-free digestion. In fact, microbiology scientist Justin Sonnenburg told Stanford Medicine News Center that incorporating fermented foods into your diet is one of the most effective dietary changes you can make in support of your overall health. Forget the fad diets — just add some fermented foods to your weekly meals.
What are the best fermented foods for gut health?
So, which fermented foods should you eat to reap these health benefits? Here’s the list.
Among fermented foods, yogurt is the most widely-available option. (Because does anybody actually know what “natto” is without Googling it?) In addition to the above mentioned health benefits resulting from a robust gut microbiome, yogurt — so long as it contains active or live cultures — can also improve bone density and lower blood pressure. Be mindful of sugar content, however, as yogurts are often high in added sugars, which can cause this otherwise-healthy fermented food to do more harm than good. Look for unsweetened yogurt with less than five grams of added sugar.
A few years ago, kombucha might have been totally off your radar. Today, this fizzy tea drink is everywhere. Kombucha is made from fermented black or green tea and has been shown to help reduce liver damage, support your body in preventing the spread of cancer cells, and, of course, promote a healthy gut. While more studies are needed on the health benefits of kombucha, initial research is promising.
Kombucha can be made at home or purchased at the grocery store. I recommend the latter, as making fermented beverages from starter cultures at home is a delicate art, and it can lead to nasty bacterial infections if you aren’t careful.
Any fan of Korean food will recognize kimchi as one of Asian cuisine’s most delicious side dishes. But, did you know that it also has all the benefits of a good probiotic? Kimchi is usually made by fermenting cabbage, but it also can be made from other vegetables, along with garlic, ginger, chili peppers, and onion. Kimchi is high in crucial vitamins and minerals, including iron, vitamin K, and riboflavin, as well as the bacteria known as Lactobacillus kimchi, which has been linked to good digestive health. If you haven’t tried kimchi before and are looking to incorporate it into your diet, there are several options: cook it with dumplings, add it to ramen or other noodles, or add it to fried rice for a delicious amino acid and probiotic-rich meal. (If you’re lucky enough to live near a Korean market, you can also buy it there.)
If you’re vegetarian or have ever considered making the switch, you’ve likely heard of this high-protein meat substitute that’s full of live microorganisms. Tempeh is made from fermented soybeans, and it’s typically shaped into a firm, spongy patty that can be used as a burger substitute. Soybeans are high in phytic acid, which can impact mineral absorption. However, the fermentation process actually lowers the phytic acid in tempeh. It also aids the production of vitamin B12, making this a super high-nutrient option for both vegetarians and those looking to improve their gut health. Originally from Indonesia, tempeh is now sold in most grocery store health food sections.
The second fermented cabbage option on this list is a fermented food favorite in Europe and the US. Sauerkraut is made by finely shredding cabbage and then fermenting it with lactic acid bacteria. The result is salty, sour deliciousness that pairs perfectly with bratwurst and hearty winter dishes like stew and Polish casserole. Sauerkraut isn’t just rich in probiotics, though: It’s also packed with key antioxidants and minerals, including vitamin C, vitamin K, sodium, iron, and potassium. Just be sure that the sauerkraut you buy is unpasteurized. The pasteurization process, while increasing sauerkraut’s shelf life, kills off the friendly bacteria your gut microbiome craves.
Think of kefir as yogurt with more healthy probiotics. This fermented milk drink is made by adding kefir grains (which are actually bacteria or yeast cultures) to milk, creating a microbiotically diverse beverage that is even by those with lactose intolerance can enjoy. Kefir is great for improving your gut microbiome and has also been linked to improved immunity and better bone health. To incorporate kefir into your diet, top it with granola and fresh fruit, add it to a morning power smoothie, or use it as a low-sugar topping for waffles and pancakes. (However, if you’re dairy-free due to allergies or preferences, kefir is one fermented food to skip.)
A Healthy Gut Microbiome at Your Fingertips
Supporting your gut health is one of the best choices you can make to promote a strong immune system, prevent infections and disease, and aid in digestive relief. Luckily, there’s never been a better time to seek out probiotic-rich foods. Grocery store aisles are now lined with a plethora of healthy fermented foods, including kimchi, kefir, and kombucha. Incorporating just one of these foods into your diet could substantially improve your overall health. So, what are you waiting for? There’s no better time than the present to taste-test a new fermented food.