You’ve probably heard about probiotics and how they might improve digestion, but it’s not just probiotics you need to think about. It turns out prebiotics are also pretty important for keeping your body in tip-top-shape and balancing the bacteria in your gut.
And when it comes to promoting better gut health, and better health overall, it’s all about eating the including the right types of foods and drinks that can help keep you regular and less bloated each day.
What’s the difference between probiotics and prebiotics?
First off—what are they? “Probiotics are living microorganisms found in foods that are beneficial to our health. Probiotics have many health benefits including alleviating diarrhea, constipation, inflammatory bowel disease, ulcers, enhance immune function, and may protect against colon cancer,” says Brooke Zigler, MPP, RDN, LD.
And while probiotics are most touted for their digestive benefits, they do keep your immunity high and lower your risk of certain diseases, thanks to their anti-inflammatory properties, she says. That’s why we can say that our gut health is linked to health all over the body, as well!
Prebiotics on the other hand are the food that feeds probiotics to help them do their job. So, it’s important to get both in the diet, as prebiotics support the efficiency of probiotics, Zigler explains.
How might you get them? “I personally recommend trying to get pre- and probiotics from food sources. If someone feels like they are not getting enough in their diet, I’d recommend consulting with their doctor for the best supplements for their individual needs,” Zigler says. If you want that boost, you can supplement with a probiotic like Culturelle or Align or prebiotic fiber or powder.
If you want to get your prebiotics and probiotics from food sources, here are the top options to choose from.
“Greek yogurt is loaded with probiotics, and also is high in protein,” says Zigler. You want to make sure you are eating Greek or Icelandic/Skyr style yogurt, as opposed to standard yogurt, which lack the strains of bacteria your body needs. Check the labels to make sure it shows probiotic use, and choose a plain version to keep sugar low.
Kefir is a fermented drink that has contains gut-friendly probiotics, says Zigler. You can find it in on the go drinks, in frozen yogurt, and smoothies. (If I am being honest, I drink Lifeway’s Plain Low Fat and Unsweetened Kefir like it’s water at home.) It’s a thick, creamy addition for drinks or homemade frozen popsicles for dessert, and it also promotes better gut health.
Feel free to ask for extra pickles on your burger or hot dog this summer. “Pickles are cucumbers that have been fermented, which are a great source of probiotics,” says Zigler. You can always pickle other veggies too, like peppers or carrots, which will then also have the same benefits from fermentation. Yet buying pickles is super easy. You can even have them post-workout to get back some lost electrolytes and to aid in recovery.
This traditional Korean fermented vegetable dish is loaded with probiotics, and is also low in calories and contains fiber, says Zigler. You can put kimchi on a meal for a tasty kick that’ll benefit both your taste buds and your belly.
You likely know of tofu, but don’t forget tempeh, an equally delicious vegan meat alternative. “Tempeh is a fermented soybean product that is used as a meat-alternative, and contains probiotics,” says Zigler. You can eat it as you would meat or plain tofu, by adding it to salads, tacos, and sandwiches, or even just eating it plain with a good sauce.
These artichokes, also known as “sunchokes,” contain a prebiotic fiber known as inulin, which provides food with good gut bacteria to grow on and can improve GI health, says Zigler. You can roast them with some olive oil and add herbs or spices like rosemary and thyme for a nice side dish at your next BBQ.
Give quinoa and brown rice a little break and try another grain on for size. “Barley contains beta-glucan, which is a prebiotic fiber that promotes the growth of healthy bacteria,” says Zigler. Plus, it’s quite tasty and nutritious, and it’ll keep you full for hours after eating it, thanks to that slow-digesting fiber.
Much like barley, oats are also a great source of prebiotics, or beta-glucan, says Zigler. Nosh on some oats in the morning or for a midday snack when you have a sugar craving—you can mix the oats with some honey and apples (another great source!) with a sprinkle of cinnamon.
That’s right—an apple a day keeps the doctor away is kind of real. “Apples contain a fiber that is known as pectin, which can promote the growth of healthy bacteria, and can also help to naturally lower cholesterol,” says Zigler. And it’ll boost your immunity, as much of your immune system resides in your gut.
If you want to kick your oatmeal up a notch for double the power, add in some flaxseeds. “Flaxseed contains both soluble and insoluble fibers, and are a great source of prebiotics,” says Zigler. You can buy flaxseed bread or just add it to your overnight oats or use as a crust for chicken or fish.
You’ve probably heard your grandma say that bran makes you poo—and well, she was right. “Wheat bran is loaded with fiber and prebiotics, making it a great way to grow healthy bacteria and improve digestive health,” says Zigler. Don’t go overboard, but feel free to add some bran to your bowl of cereal or make a healthy bran muffin at home.