Here’s your guide to foods high in “good” bacteria.
Probiotics — the live microorganisms found in fermented foods such as kefir and kimchi — are one of the hottest, and most promising, topics in nutritional research. Your gut is teeming with trillions of bacteria that help you digest food as well as thwart intruders — and it turns out, you can give those friendly bacteria a boost by adding probiotics to your body. “We’re only at the cusp of understand the potential of probiotics,” says Gregor Reid, PhD, a microbiologist at the University of Western Ontario. Soon, Dr. Reid theorizes, probiotics may be used in prescription drugs to treat a range of conditions, from acne to depression.
There’s another way these mighty microbes help your gut: In a recent study in the Journal of Functional Foods, people who ate probiotic-rich yogurt daily lost 3 to 4 percent of their body fat in 6 weeks. The shift in gut bacteria prompted by probiotics may favor fat burning over fat storage, explains study author Jaclyn Omar, of the University of Manitoba in Canada.
Some probiotics are much better than others. “The best, most natural forms of probiotics are fermented foods,” says Lisa Ganjhu, DO, a gastroenterologist at New York University Langone Medical Center. Fortified foods, such as probiotic-enhanced dough, may deliver fewer of the good guys, since the manufacturing process can kill off many of the healthy live cultures.
The amount and kind of live cultures per bite will vary, but words like raw, lacto-fermented, or unpasteurized on the packaging indicate that the bacteria haven’t been killed off during the manufacturing process. Look for yogurt with the “live active cultures” seal; this indicates that it has not been heated after the fermentation process and contains at least 100 million cultures per gram (or 10 million cultures per gram for frozen yogurt).
In my new book 20 Pounds Younger, I detail the probiotic-friendly foods to track down at your grocery store. Here’s a sneak peak: Besides yogurt, some common fermented foods include kefir (a fermented milk drink), sauerkraut (plus it counts as a veggie!), kombucha (fermented, sweetened black and/or green tea), kimchi (spicy pickled cabbage), miso soup, and fermented pickles. It’s great if you can eat some fermented foods every day, but two or three times a week is a good place to start.
Kefir can improve digestion and restore beneficial bacteria after a round of antibiotics. Bonus: It has more protein and less sugar than yogurt, but with the same creamy texture and tangy taste. Try it in salad dressings or smoothies. Plain kefir is in the dairy aisle and can be consumed in all the same ways as yogurt, says Keri Glassman, MS, RD, president of Nutritious Life in New York City.
Lactobacilli, a type of good bacteria found in kimchi, can help prevent yeast infections. Kimchi is usually eaten as a side or garnish, says Glassman, who suggests pairing it with fish or vegetables.
A study published in the British Journal of Nutrition found that eating sauerkraut may help prevent cancer. Sauerkraut goes with more than hot dogs and Reuben sandwiches: You can eat it as a stand-alone side dish (it’s a great substitute for slaw), on top of lean chicken sausage and veggie or portobello burgers, or added to stir-fries (after cooking, to avoid killing the good bacteria). “Sauerkraut adds a sour note,” says nutritionist Dawn Jackson Blatner, RD. “Chefs call it a brightener — it makes your food’s flavor pop.”
Miso, a staple in Japanese cooking, is a paste made of fermented soybeans — and is also a good source of probiotics.
What if your diet isn’t full of probiotic-rich foods?
If you aren’t getting enough probiotics from your daily diet, a supplement can make up the difference. Most supplements contain Lactobacillus and Bifidobacterium, although you’ll see some with more strains (sometimes called “mega probiotics”). These pumped-up versions aren’t necessarily better, but some experts say it’s a good idea to switch supplements every month or two.
Recommendations vary, but supplements with at least 20 billion live organisms per dose tend to be most effective, experts say. You can choose from among powders, pills, and liquid shots, and some probiotics are sold chilled and must be kept that way to maintain their effectiveness. Here are a few winners in the supplement world.
Align: It contains Bifantis, a patented strain of bacteria that helps maintain digestive balance.
Florastor: A study found that this supplement alleviates antibiotic-related diarrhea and may help boost the immune system, making this a smart choice when traveling, says Dr. Reid.
Rephresh Pro-B: This is the only probiotic clinically shown to balance yeast and bacteria daily.
Be Well By Dr. Frank Lipman — Probiotic Powder: Add a teaspoon to your smoothie to ease chronic indigestion.
Culturelle Digestive Health Probiotic Chewables: These have been shown to boost general digestive health.