Learningabout the human microbiome and optimizing gut health are all the rage– and for good reason! Did you know that in the human body,microorganisms outnumber human cells by 10 to 1? These bacteria make up about two to six pounds of our body weight - wow! - soit’s important to keep them healthy and happy because they help dictate everything from our weight to our mood.
Probiotics, or healthy bacteria, receive lots of praise for helping with digestion. And the good news is you don’t have to run out and buy supplements to enjoy their benefits. Fermented foods contain high levels of good bacteria which studies show can also help reduce anxiety in addition to their physical gut health benefits. When you have a healthy gut, you’ll also have a healthy immune system ready to fight off infection and keep you from needing to take sick days.
Here’s a rundown of foods and drinks that are good sources of probiotics that can help improve digestion and boost your immune system, among other benefits:
Yogurt is perhaps the most well-known probiotic-rich food, but be sure to check the label to ensure it contains live and active cultures and not too much added sugar. Not only does yogurt support digestive health, but studies have shown that a higher consumption of yogurt was associated with a reduced risk oftype 2 diabetes. The great thing about yogurt is its versatility—it isn’t just for breakfast! Use yogurt for savory meals to create creamy, healthier-for-you sauces like thislinguine with citrusy yogurt and tuna sauce (don’t knock it ‘til you try it!).
Buyer’s Tip:Look for plain Greek yogurts for all the probiotics of traditional yogurt but more protein and less sugar per serving!
2. Non-Dairy Yogurts and Milks
If you’re not a fan of dairy or you are lactose intolerant, you don’t have to rely on traditional yogurt for probiotics. Just look for almond, cashew, coconut, or soy yogurt with live and active cultures. And bonus: some non-dairy milks have added cultures too! At Integrative Nutrition, we believe in choosing whatever diet works best for your individual needs, whether it’s dairy-free, gluten-free, vegan or whatever fuels your body to feel your best.
Buyer’s Tip: Some live and active cultures are derived from a milk base, so if you’re vegan, be sure to double check the label to make sure your yogurt is fully dairy-free.
Have you ever heard of yogurt’s cousin, Kefir? This fermented milk is made from “grains” that are actually a mix of different strains of bacteria and yeast. Kefir is thinner than yogurt, so it’s commonly consumed as a drink. If you don’t like the idea of drinking it by itself, mix it into a smoothie. Kefir has been shown to aid digestion, heal burns, suppress early-stage tumors and boost the immune system—just to name a few benefits!
Buyer’s Tip: Flavored Kefir is often packed with as much sugar as a candy bar, so opt for the plain variety whenever possible.
A traditional Korean staple, kimchi is naturally fermented cabbage, often combined with a variety of spices like ginger, garlic, and chilis, as well as salt and sugar. The dominant bacteria found in kimchi is lactic acid bacteria, formed during the fermentation process, and is the main source of the gut-friendly bugs we’re all looking for. In addition to its digestivebenefits, kimchi’s probiotics have been found to improve heart health and reduce inflammation to support overall health.
Buyer’s tip: Kimchi is not a low-sodium food, so if you have a history of high blood pressure or other cardiovascular-related health issues, be wary of portion sizes.
Soy beans are soaked, cooked, pressed, and then fermented to create tempeh, a great plant-based source of protein. Because tempeh is cooked before consuming, it’s not as rich in probiotics as the other foods listed here, but it is rich in prebiotics, a type of fiber that promotes good bacteria growth in the gut.
Buyer’s tip: Similar to tofu, tempeh takes on the flavor of anything its cooked with. Opt for unflavored tempeh at the supermarket so you can amp up flavors on your own to limit sodium and added sugar.
Kombucha has become wildly popular as an alternative to alcoholic beverages, as well as for its touted gut health benefits. This fermented green or black tea is made with bacteria and yeast to create that fizzy, bubbly drink we know and love. The natural fermentation process by which kombucha is made makes this drink rich in probiotics, as well as promotes healthy blood sugar levels and reduces inflammation.
Buyer’s tip: Flavored kombucha often has a lot of added sugar, so be sure to read the label before buying a bottle.
Whether you’re eating miso soup or cooking with miso paste, this food is full of probiotics. According to Livestrong, miso is made through a fermentation process using a cultured starter called koji, which contains a fungal microorganism called Aspergillus oryzae, or other cultures including Saccharomyces rouxii. Keep in mind, however, that miso contains lots of sodium and you must choose an unpasteurized brand.
Buyer’s Tip: Allergic to soy? Try out a chickpea or red adzuki bean-based miso instead!
Natto is a traditional Japanese food and another form of fermented soy beans. First boiled and then combined with a spore-forming bacteria called Bacillus subtilis, natto has a distinctive texture and nutty flavor. Rich in many micronutrients such as manganese, magnesium and iron, natto is also much richer in probiotic bacteria per gram than other probiotic foods. Because of the way natto is fermented with this particular bacterium, natto is more easily digested than other soy products.
Buyer’s tip: Look for natto that has not been previously frozen, as that could negate the positive health benefits inherent to the natto product.
That cheese plate just got a whole lot healthier! Cheese that has been aged but not heated are great sources of probiotics, like Swiss, cheddar, and even cottage cheese. Cheese made from raw, unpasteurized milk is also rich in probiotics!
Buyer’s tip: Cheese is still high in calories, saturated fat, and sodium, and should be enjoyed in moderation as part of a healthy, varied diet.
Pickled cucumbers (and other pickled foods, for that matter) that are made without vinegar may contain healthy probiotics. Look for pickles that are brine cured, meaning they only contain salt, water, and spices, which keeps the bacteria alive. You can make your own fermented foods—but just make sure you do it correctly to avoid illness.
Buyer’s Tip: Be aware of the high sodium content of pickles and be sure to enjoy them in moderation.
Made from fermented cabbage, sauerkraut is rich in live cultures and also contains tons of vitamins and fiber. Like pickles, some sauerkraut may not contain probiotics if made from vinegar, so be sure to check to ensure you’re getting beneficial bacteria.
Buyer’s Tip: Get the scoop on sauerkraut from IIN’sfounder Joshua Rosenthal in the video below!
Why eat probiotics?
There’s no shortage of reasons to add probiotics to your diet! From a healthy immune system that wards off infections to a smooth-moving digestive system, you’ll feel healthy and energized with a probiotic-rich diet. While many of these foods can promote digestion amongst the other benefits, it’s recommended to start slow when adding probiotic foods into your diet, as they could cause bloating, gas, and gastrointestinal upset for some people. At the end of the day, find what foods work for you!
IIN Content Writer
Nina holds a bachelor’s in dietetics, nutrition, and food sciences from the University of Vermont and is a graduate of IIN’s Health Coach Training Program.
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