beneficial bacteria

A simple guide to prebiotics and probiotics

Bacteria in the gut (gastrointestinal tract) sound frightening, but certain bacteria actually keep your digestive tract healthy and help keep the harmful bacteria away. Have you ever heard of prebiotics and probiotics? These are the friendly bacteria that you should get to know.

Probiotics are live bacteria found in certain foods. These are the good bacteria that benefit the digestive system.

Prebiotics are indigestible fibers we get from our diet that feed the good bacteria in our gut.

It takes both probiotics and prebiotics to maintain a healthy digestive system. Without the prebiotics to feed probiotics, the amount of good bacteria declines creating a prime opportunity for bad bacteria to creep in. To keep those bad bacteria at bay, we need to boost our diet with healthy sources of prebiotics and probiotics. Use the chart below as a guide to choose the foods that will help maximize your digestive health.

When shopping for fermented foods, pay special attention to the food label. Our ancestors fermented foods as a way of preserving them. Today we rely more on the convenience of pasteurization to preserve and keep our foods safe, but this process kills all the bacteria, good and bad. So when shopping for probiotics, you want to look for fermented foods that have NOT been pasteurized. These foods will spoil if not refrigerated, so look for them in the refrigerated section of the store and not on the shelf.

For example, pickles on the shelf will not contain probiotics because they have been pasteurized. Pickles in the refrigerated section that have not been pasteurized will contain probiotics. The same holds true for the other fermented foods, such as kimchi and sauerkraut. The key to selecting fermented dairy foods, like yogurt, kefir, and aged cheese, is to make sure they contain live and active cultures; for example, bifidobacteria and lactobacilli. Not all yogurts contain live cultures.

If you are not accustomed to eating fermented foods and foods high in prebiotic fibers, be sure to start slowly and do not overwhelm your digestive system with too much all at once. If you suffer from any gastrointestinal (GI) disorders or have frequent GI symptoms, be sure to check with your healthcare provider before making any changes to your diet.

You are probably thinking, “Why can’t I just take a probiotic and a prebiotic supplement?” Well you can, but the health benefits of eating whole foods are greater than the nutrients and fiber received from a pill. Plus the makeup of bacteria in a probiotic supplement is not yet completely understood or agreed upon.

If you choose to take a probiotic and/or a prebiotic supplement, consult with a healthcare professional who is knowledgeable about these supplements and can recommend one that is right for you. For certain GI conditions, a probiotic or prebiotic supplement is prescribed as a part of a treatment plan; but for daily digestive health, your diet is the best source of healthy bacteria.

Ready to get started? Serve up a little yogurt (with live active cultures) topped with fresh berries. Sauté some vegetables (asparagus, onions, and garlic), add a sprinkle of grated Gouda cheese and a slice of sourdough bread. The possibilities are endless, and your digestive system will be tickled pink.