Perhaps you’ve passed them in the health food aisle at Whole Foods. Maybe your favorite influencer has referenced them on their nutrition blog. But how do you know if you’re getting enough probiotics and prebiotics and what role do they play in your digestion?
With so many fads and seemingly conflicting nutritional advice, it can be hard to know what information is true. So, we asked an RDN —that is, a registered dietitian nutritionist—to break probiotics and prebiotics down to help you better understand the role they play in the ecosystem of your gut microbiome.
What Are Probiotics?
Probiotics are “good bacteria.” Your body is home to trillions of living microorganisms, from the surface of your skin to your digestive system. These bacteria make up your gut microbiome. Most of these organisms are harmless and play an essential role in helping your body function properly and maintain a healthy balance of microflora. Everyone needs a certain amount of these good, living bacteria in their gut to protect against the not-so-good ones.
Having healthy bacteria is important to your overall health, but without the right environment, they can’t survive. Like all living organisms, probiotics require basic necessities to stay alive within the body.
So, how do probiotics eat? That’s where prebiotics come in.
What Are Prebiotics?
Unlike probiotics, prebiotics are non-digestible and stimulate the growth of good bacteria while reducing the growth of disease-causing bacteria. They’re typically found in hearty foods resistant to your stomach’s acidic pH and can’t be absorbed by the digestive tract. This allows prebiotics to become food for the probiotics.
Prebiotics also help your body absorb nutrients, increase immune function, decrease inflammation, and maintain a healthy weight.
If you’re working on creating and maintaining a healthy digestive system, both probiotics and prebiotics are important in your diet.
How to Get More Probiotics
In general, it’s better to get probiotics through foods instead of supplements, unless your healthcare provider suggests otherwise.
Fermented and aged foods are packed with probiotics. Here are some ways you can integrate them into your diet:
- Make homemade kombucha. You can get creative and play around with different flavors and mixtures. There are plenty of great starter kits available to you, like this one. If making your own kombucha doesn’t suit you, you can pick up ready-to-drink kombucha from your local health food or grocery store.
- Say “yes” to yogurt and kefir. If you practice a vegan or dairy-free diet, there are still many options available to you. Try kefir water or versions made with coconut milk.
- Top your salad or sandwich with kimchi, sauerkraut, or other pickles. You can even try making pickled onions at home. It’s quick and easy and a great way to add character to your home recipes.
- Trade tofu for tempeh. Instead of more-processed tofu, try swapping its Indonesian version, tempeh, in your recipes. Made with whole soybeans, tempeh is a firmer, fermented variation of tofu. It also contains more protein. To prepare tempeh, slice it into cubes, then steam it by adding some water to a pot or frying pan and covering. The tempeh will expand, making it softer and easier to digest. Once the water evaporates, toss the tempeh with your favorite sauce. Try pesto tahini (with raw garlic), honey garlic, or a concoction of your choice.
- Ferment your oats. Fermenting your oats starts with soaking them before you cook them, which makes them easier to digest, like in this recipe.
How to Get More Prebiotics
As with probiotics, it’s generally better to get prebiotics through the foods you eat versus through supplements.
Fruits and veggies are a great source of prebiotics, thanks to their soluble fiber. Prebiotics are most effective when eaten raw, and here are some simple ways to incorporate them into your diet:
- Eat raw Jerusalem artichokes or sunchokes. These can be thinly sliced and used as a replacement for chips, then paired with your favorite dip, such as hummus or guacamole. Prefer them cooked? Use them as a replacement for potatoes and root vegetables.
- Rev up sauces or dips with raw garlic. When preparing hummus or pesto, toss a few cloves of raw garlic into your food processor and blend.
- Garnish your meal with a side of grilled onions. Lightly barbecue rings of raw onion, giving them a slightly charred taste while keeping them undercooked.
- Use chicory root powder when baking. With a taste similar to coffee, try adding chicory root power to dessert recipes. You can also look for herbal teas and cacao mushroom elixirs with this added ingredient as a substitute for coffee.
- Toss a green banana into your smoothie. Unlike fully ripe, yellow bananas, green bananas are full of soluble fiber, and are therefore preloaded with prebiotics.
The Bottom Line
Both prebiotics and probiotics work together to support your overall gut health. Probiotics on their own won’t give you the full potential benefits. Without prebiotic fiber, the microorganisms can’t thrive to support healthy digestion and gut flora.
Each person’s gut microbiome is unique. Eating a balanced diet that includes a variety of foods is the best way to improve and maintain your overall gut health.
Looking for support to create healthier eating habits? An Arootah Life Coach can help.
Now that you know more about prebiotics and probiotics, what changes will you plan to make to your diet? Are you already incorporating any of these foods into your diet already? Let us know in the comments!