Nowadays, we hear so much about the importance of a well-balanced gut microbiome. And for good reason! Gastroenterologists and dietitians agree: A healthy gut is linked to improved digestion and regularity, better immune health, increased cognitive functioning, lower levels of stress, and so much more.
When covering gut-healthy nutrients to including in your diet, experts often preach the importance of eating plenty of fiber and probiotics. But there's another form of bacteria that is just as beneficial for your gut as probiotics, which means it definitely deserves your attention: prebiotics, which feed the probiotics in the gut.
“Probiotics are beneficial bacteria, and prebiotics are the food for these bacteria,” says Janine Whiteson, MS, RD. “Both are very important for human health, yet each one has different roles.” Whiteson explains that, in short, probiotics are live bacteria found in certain foods or supplements that provide numerous health benefits, but in order to work, they need to be fed by prebiotics. Prebiotics come from different types of carbohydrates (mostly fiber) that humans cannot digest.
“Prebiotics—and prebiotic foods—help probiotics flourish. They are as important [as probiotics] when it comes to keeping your gut microbiota healthy and help protect you from harmful bacteria and fungi. Prebiotics also aid in immune system functions, improve symptoms of depression, help reduce inflammation in the body, and can even reduce your risk of certain cancers," says Whiteson.
How can we know if we’re getting enough prebiotic foods in our diet?
There is no set or defined amount for prebiotic intake, but studies suggest that eating three to five grams of prebiotics a day can benefit the health of your gut, according to Whiteson. “I always tell my clients that if they eat the recommended amount of dietary fiber suggested by the FDA, they will likely be getting enough prebiotics," she says. "Getting plenty of fiber from fruits, veggies, and whole grains and following a diverse diet with minimal amounts of unprocessed foods will help ensure that you will get plenty of prebiotics without needing supplements.”
The top 16 prebiotic foods to stock up on for a health gut
Greek yogurt is a particularly nutritious choice, because it’s high in both protein and prebiotics. “But that's not all: Greek yogurt contains probiotics, too,” says Laura Purdy, MD, MBA. “And you can't beat it for convenience, because yogurt tends to be prepackaged in quantities that already contain the recommended serving size.”
Garlic is an allium that has been long recognized for its many health benefits, "including anti-inflammatory, anti-bacterial, and cholesterol-improving effects," says Dr. Purdy. “Garlic directly enhances the growth of good bacteria in the gut, too. There isn’t really a particular serving size that is recommended for garlic as it can be used liberally to season foods, so when it comes to cooking with this ingredient, the more the merrier." (Just remember to slip yourself a breath mint!)
Cocoa powder is rich in a variety of polyphenols, which have both anti-inflammatory and antioxidant effects. “This is another prebiotic substance that helps with the growth of gut bacteria and also helps prevent the growth of harmful bacteria,” says Dr. Purdy. “Cocoa powder is also considered a seasoning and there really isn’t a set serving size of straight cocoa powder, but when consuming cocoa products that also contain other substances such as saturated fat, salt, or sugar, it’s important to pay attention to the serving size of those particular food items.” And when shopping for chocolate, look for dark varieties with 70 percent cacao or greater to reap the most anti-inflammatory, gut-friendly benefits.
“Wheat bran is rich in prebiotic fiber, and it can help with several digestive symptoms including bloating, pain, cramping and gas. Additionally, it has antioxidant properties, which means eating wheat bran can even potentially decrease your risk of cancer,” says Dr. Purdy.
One medium size banana is a great prebiotic source, says Dr. Purdy. “Interestingly, green bananas—rather than yellow bananas—have a substance called resistant starch, which is harder to digest than other starches. This type of starch works very similarly to how you might think of a soluble fiber working, and does have some associations with lowering blood sugar, boosting energy levels, and helping digestion. Green bananas are a super source of resistant starch and a great prebiotic food.”
Whiteson recommends having a half of a cup of onions daily in soups, stews, on salads... basically mixed into anything. “They’re very high in antioxidants and flavonoids, which help protect against cancers, while also being high in inulin and prebiotics.”
Blackberries and blueberries
Whether you go for fresh or frozen berries, Whiteson says you can’t go wrong with a cup (or more) per day. “Studies have shown these berries can dramatically improve gut and colon bacteria and fight inflammation, which is a leading cause of disease,” she adds.
A serving size is a cup here as well, whether cooked or raw. “The fiber in cabbage provides prebiotic fuel for the good bacteria in our large intestines, and it’s loaded with soluble and insoluble fiber to help with bowel regularity,” says Whiteson.
Asparagus contains inulin, which Whiteson says is helpful in balancing glucose and energy levels. "Asparagus also works to help quell inflammation, as it’s rich in antioxidants and may help prevent certain chronic diseases," she says. Whiteson recommends a cup per day fresh or frozen.
Oats and barley
To get a good amount of prebiotics, opt for a half cup per day of cooked oats or barley. “They’re loaded with prebiotics called beta-glucan, which may help lower “bad” LDL cholesterol and promote healthy growth of good gut bacteria,” says Whiteson.
Chickpeas, lentils, and kidney beans
Go for two-thirds of a cup, says Carrie Gabriel, MS, RDN. “Chickpeas, lentils, and kidney beans are high in fiber and are a great choice for those looking to increase their prebiotic fiber intake.”
Gabriel recommends one portobello mushroom or a half of a cup of chopped white mushrooms. “You use them as a burger substitute or in a stir fry. Mushrooms are high in beta-glucan and other indigestible carbohydrates, which make them a great prebiotic choice.”
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