Perhaps you’ve passed them in the supplement’s aisle at Whole Foods. Maybe your favorite influencer 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?
Knowing what information is accurate can be challenging with so many fads and seemingly conflicting nutritional advice. So, we asked an RDN —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 essential for 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, which allows prebiotics to become food for the probiotics.
If you’re working on creating and maintaining a healthy digestive system, both probiotics and prebiotics are important in your diet.
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How to Get Probiotics Naturally
Generally, getting probiotics via the foods you consume is better than relying on supplements unless your healthcare provider suggests otherwise.
Here are some ways to incorporate probiotics into your diet:
1. Sip on kombucha:
Kombucha contains several species of lactic-acid bacteria which may have a probiotic function. Since there are many different brands and flavors of kombucha available, try different ones to find out which flavor suits you best, or even get creative and make your own.
2. Say “yes” to yogurt and kefir:
Yogurt and kefir (a fermented probiotic milk beverage) are packed with probiotics. Be sure to select yogurt with active or live cultures, as not all yogurt contains these probiotics.
3. Top your salad or sandwich with kimchi or sauerkraut:
Sauerkraut and kimchi are gluten-free fermented foods created by pickling fresh cabbage leaves and other vegetables using lactobacillus (a lactic acid bacteria). Adding these to a sandwich or salad is an excellent way to consume more probiotics.
4. Trade tofu for tempeh:
Instead of the 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 water to a pot or frying pan and covering it. The tempeh will expand, making it softer and easier to digest. Once the water evaporates, toss the tempeh with your favorite sauce.
5. Ferment your oats:
How to Get Prebiotics Naturally
As with probiotics, it’s generally better to get prebiotics through the foods you eat versus through supplements.
Prebiotics are most effective when eaten raw, and here are some simple ways to incorporate them into your diet:
1. Try raw Jerusalem artichokes (sunchokes):
Raw Jerusalem artichokes, also known as sunchokes, are an excellent source of prebiotic fiber. These can be thinly sliced and used as a chip replacement, then paired with your favorite dips, such as hummus or guacamole. Prefer them cooked? Use them as a replacement for potatoes and root vegetables.
2. Rev up sauces or dips with raw garlic:
Garlic acts as a prebiotic by promoting the growth of Bifidobacteria in the gut. When preparing hummus or pesto drips, toss a few cloves of raw garlic into your food processor and blend for a prebiotic-packed dip.
3. Garnish your meal with grilled onions:
Similar to garlic, onions have prebiotic properties. Onions are also incredibly easy to incorporate into your diet. Looking for a recipe idea? Lightly barbecue rings of raw onion, giving them a slightly charred taste while keeping them undercooked, and use them as a garnish on grilled chicken or steak.
4. Use chicory root powder when baking:
Chicory root comes from the dandelion family and tastes similar to coffee. This root is packed with prebiotics (68% of chicory root fiber comes from the prebiotic fiber inulin). Try adding chicory root powder to dessert recipes or smoothies. You can also look for herbal teas and cacao mushroom elixirs with this added ingredient as a substitute for coffee.
5. Add a green banana to your smoothie:
Unlike fully ripe, yellow bananas, green bananas are full of soluble fiber and are therefore preloaded with prebiotics. Add one to your daily smoothie for a tasty and creamy drink with added gut-health benefits.
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. Similarly, 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 an effective way to improve and maintain your overall gut health.
Looking for support to create better eating habits? Take our free health assessment to understand your health better and discover areas where you may need to make lifestyle changes.