As researchers learn more and more about the gut microbiome, we’re finding that gut health isn’t just about avoiding tummy trouble. Good gut health is critical for keeping your body running smoothly overall, from immune function to athletic performance. And good gut health is influenced by having good bacteria and yeast in your gut, in the form of probiotics. You’ve likely seen probiotics and prebiotics in supplement form, but did you know that it’s easy to get both from whole foods?
Here, TrueSport Expert Stephanie Miezin, MS, RD, CSSD, explains what probiotics and prebiotics do, as well as how your athlete can easily incorporate each into their meals.
What are probiotics and prebiotics?
Probiotics are the types of microbes found in fermented foods that confer benefits to the host (us!) when eaten. They can help ease gastrointestinal symptoms like bloating, gas, and diarrhea…and perhaps even help your body better absorb nutrients.
The fuel for gut bacteria or microbes comes in the form of prebiotics, which are fermentable carbohydrates. These fermentable carbohydrates need to travel all the way into the large intestines and colon where the good bacteria are waiting.
The gut bacteria eat and ferment the prebiotics, and then they become happier and healthier. The healthier they are, the more diverse and strong your gut microbiome becomes, and that makes you healthier overall.
Eating the right foods fuels a healthy microbiome
We can’t just take a single probiotic pill and then eat fast food all the time and expect our microbiome to flourish. Eating all junk food, even while taking a probiotic, is like planting grass and never watering it, but expecting it to grow. And eating probiotic rich food once in a while doesn’t guarantee success either. We know we get some sort of benefit from consuming them, but it’s unclear how the microbiome develops and how long the microbes from a single meal last.
Probiotics are found in fermented foods
Fermented foods have undergone controlled fermentation with bacteria and other microbes, and so they naturally contain beneficial bacteria. Controlled fermentation is definitely the key, and foods in this category include yogurt and kefir (fermented milk drink), as well as fermented vegetables, such as kimchi and sauerkraut. Pickled vegetables are also in this category, but many shelf-stable pickles and products won’t actually lead to those good bacteria since they don’t undergo the fermentation process. Probiotics are also found in fermented soy products like tempeh, natto, and miso paste. For picky eaters, kombucha—sweetened tea that’s been fermented—may be a good way to get probiotics.
Unfortunately, fermented foods in general have a distinct acidic taste that some people love, but picky eaters who grew up without it may struggle to adjust. That’s why it’s good to introduce kids to probiotic-rich foods when they’re young, so they are used to the taste.
How to eat your prebiotics
Supporting a healthy gut microbial community means feeding them well. That means eating prebiotic-rich foods daily. Some of the heavy hitters when it comes to prebiotics include asparagus, onions, garlic, shallots, leeks, scallions, broccoli, cauliflower, kale, Brussel sprouts, cabbage, artichokes, sunchokes, or Jerusalem artichokes. Green bananas are also a great source of these fermentable hard-to-digest carbohydrates. Whole wheat, barley, and rye are also excellent, in addition to resistant starches.
To easily incorporate resistant starch, meal-prepping is your friend. If you cook and then cool rice, pasta, or potatoes, the carbohydrate molecules in them realign and become a resistant starch, making them harder for our bodies to break down and better food for the gut microbiome. So, the next time you’re meal-prepping by making a big batch of rice or potatoes, know that you’re actually improving your gut microbiome in the process. And even if you do reheat the rice, pasta, or potatoes, they remain a resistant starch.
There’s no perfect dose
Having some type of fermented food on a daily basis is good for gut health, but there are no specific guidelines around serving size when it comes to probiotic doses. Adding some form to at least one meal a day is a great goal. That could be using kefir in a smoothie, adding a scoop of kimchi to a rice bowl, or tossing pickled vegetables into a salad for dinner. The same applies for prebiotics: Aim to include at least one on the plate at breakfast, lunch, or dinner every day for a happier, healthier gut.
Eating probiotic and prebiotic-rich foods can improve your overall gut health. Probiotics can be found in fermented foods like sauerkraut, kimchi, and kefir, while prebiotics can be found in hard-to-digest vegetables like broccoli and kale. Adding a serving of both prebiotic and probiotic-rich foods on a daily basis is a good idea for any young athlete—no supplements required.