When it comes to sustainable wellness, one of the guiding principles is the notion that when you heal and restore the gut, true health begins. With a revitalized gut comes stronger immunity, a body that’s much better equipped to stop many common ills – from major to minor – from dragging you down.
Simply put, health starts in the gut. Keeping your good and bad bacteria in balance is essential to maintaining gut health. In order to keep the bad guys in check and the good guys flourishing, you need probiotics, for sure, but the gut also needs prebiotics, the less-talked-about but likely even more important dietary side of the ‘biotic’ coin. Here’s a topline on these oft-overlooked gut-supporting foot soldiers and how to get more of them into your life – and gut.
What are prebiotics?
If you’re familiar with probiotics, you’re probably are aware they help add or ‘seed’ the gut with good bacteria and balance the ratio of good-to-bad. This bacterial balance facilitates better nutrient absorption, strengthens immunity and keeps health and digestion humming. Prebiotic foods – primarily indigestible plant fibers – have similarly positive digestive effects, but the twist here is that all those prebiotic foods nourish the good bacteria already living in the gut (aka the ‘resident’ bacteria) and encourage their growth. Think of prebiotics as the fertilizer that enables your gut garden to thrive.
Where can I get them?
You’ll find the prebiotic big guns in the (preferably organic) produce aisle. There, you’ll find a treasure trove of prebiotic foods loaded with inulin and oligosaccharides, the non-digestible carbs, which ferment in the gut and create by-product compounds that support the gut’s resident “bugs.” These, in turn, help keep you healthy. A few easy-to-incorporate prebiotic plant-fiber champs include:
- Green/under-ripe Bananas
- Chicory root (raw)
- Dark leafy greens
- Dandelion greens
- Garlic (raw)
- Jerusalem artichokes or sunchokes
- Jicama (raw)
- Leeks (raw)
- Legumes like lentils, black beans, kidney beans and chickpeas
- Onions (raw or cooked)
- Green Plantains
Save the stalks and stems!
Broccoli and cauliflower florets may be pretty on the plate, but the stalks and stems are where it’s at from a prebiotic point of view. Same goes for red chard stalks, kale and collard green stems — so don’t throw them out! Those underrated but valuable tough veggie bits play an important role in gut health by giving your good bacteria something, namely cellulose fibers, to feast on. Try slicing stalks and stems into thin discs or skinny strips. You can munch on these raw, crudités style, or give ‘em a light steam or sauté with the rest of your veggie leaves and florets.
Harness some crazy good prebiotic benefits.
Not all that impressed with fewer digestive problems and strengthened immunity? Then how about less disease-triggering inflammation, reduced cardiovascular disease risk, fewer autoimmune flare-ups and improved hormone balance? There’s even a fair number of studies suggesting that prebiotics have a positive impact on taming stress and anxiety levels, making your next bowl of leafy greens considerably more of a mind/body super-meal than a sleep-inducing, anxiety-goosing, insulin-trashing bowl of spaghetti carbonara.
Eat more, weigh less.
Another positive side-effect of a diet that’s deep into prebiotics? Less hunger. All that nutrient-rich, regularity-promoting indigestible fiber helps fill your belly and curbs hunger longer. With this increased satiety, chances are you’ll be a lot less likely to pork out on empty-calorie nasties like sugar, simple carbs and nutrient-free processed foods which, by the way, do a lousy job of keeping you full. And from there, it’s a hop-skip-jump to reduced weight and blood sugar levels. But keep in mind, it’s not a case of “one salad and your gut’s done.” Like the Tamagotchi digital pet of the early ‘00’s, you need to keep feeding it to thrive. So keep the prebiotics – and all their fermentation-facilitating indigestible fiber – flowing at every meal.
Your prebiotic prescription.
If you’re not used to eating a lot of prebiotic foods, start slow and work your way up to optimal levels over the course of a few days or weeks, depending on how well your gut tolerates the influx. Assuming you do not have major gastrointestinal problems (like Crohn’s or IBS), try working your way up to 3 – 5 servings or more each day. Keep in mind, in general, raw foods will retain more of prebiotic fiber than cooked, so opt for raw whenever possible. In the case of tougher-to-eat-raw foods like asparagus, very lightly steaming or home-fermenting can make them easier to incorporate into meals.
Let’s eat a little (prebiotic) treat.
In addition to upping your intake with the fiber-rich produce listed above, you can also sneak a few more prebiotics into your day with these delicious Ginger Carob Chip cookies, one of our favorite, not-too-sweet healthy, homemade treats from the Be Well kitchen. Enjoy!