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You’ve probably heard about eating more probiotics, the live microorganisms that keep your gut health in check, but have you heard about eating more prebiotics, the food for those microorganisms? We chatted with experts to break down what are prebiotics, why you need them, and what are the best prebiotic foods to support your gut.
Why do we need to eat for gut health?
The food we eat greatly impacts our overall gut health, explains Rachael Hartley, R.D., author of Gentle Nutrition. “Simply eating itself and having food in the stomach sets off a cascade of muscle contractions that move food through the gut,” she explains. First, protein, fat, and carbohydrates trigger the release of digestive enzymes that break down food into smaller and smaller pieces. Some parts are absorbed for energy and the rest is left to contribute to the gut microbiome, the community of organisms that live in the gut, Hartley says.
The health of our microbiome impacts our mental health, immunity, and risk for chronic disease, she adds, and the foods we eat can have an effect on our stool and the speed at which food moves through the gut.
What are prebiotics?
There’s actually quite a difference between prebiotics and probiotics. While probiotics, like yogurt or miso, are foods fortified with good gut microflora, prebiotics are the foods that have the nutrients to feed that gut microflora, explains Sunny Jain, M.D., gastroenterologist and Sun Genomics founder.
These foods contain non-digestible dietary fibers that the human body can’t break down and absorb through the intestinal tract like other minerals and vitamins. So, the good gut microbes work to metabolize and ferment those prebiotic fibers that ultimately benefit us and our gut health, he adds. The compounds strengthen the colon wall, boost the immune system, and may reduce the risk for colon cancer, Hartley says.
“To be clear, a prebiotic food’s purpose is not to provide nutrition to you and your physiology, but to your commensal gut microbes and their micro-physiology, broadly called gut health,” Dr. Jain says. “By feeding these beneficial gut microflorae, we, the host, benefit from the molecules they release into our gut, like short chain fatty acids. If you don’t feed your good gut bugs the prebiotics they need, you may end up with a leaky gut.”
So, you might be thinking that the highest-calorie food is best to feed your gut then, right? Well, not so much. Dr. Jain explains that your gut contains both good and bad microbes, and inflammatory foods like fried foods or high glycemic foods with simple sugars or high fructose corn syrup actually serve as food for the harmful microbes of the gut. Instead, opt for high-fiber foods packed with gut-boosting benefits.
Though Sameer Berry, M.D., Chief Medical Officer at Oshi Health notes it’s important to remember other factors like genetics, lifestyle choices, and environmental influences when it comes to our gut health, the diet is a factor we can control. Here are the best prebiotic foods for gut health to add to your diet.
The best prebiotic foods for gut health
Lentils, pulses, and beans all fall under the umbrella of legumes and each provides vital prebiotics to the gut. Lentils for example not only come with manganese, potassium, folate, and iron, but they have a whopping 16 grams of fiber per cup, which can help with digestion and gastrointestinal health. Additionally, lentils offer resistance starch which is not digested by the small intestine but can be fermented by gut bacteria, explains Dr. Berry.
Your salad may be doing your gut some help. Leafy greens like kale bring fiber, folate, and B vitamins to your plate in addition to vitamin C, and research suggests leafy greens can increase the growth of healthy gut bacteria.
Because of the high fiber present in 100% whole grain foods, like brown rice, whole grain bread, and whole grain pasta, they act as a prebiotic in the gut, explains Nicole Lindel, R.D.N. And though we love all whole grains, oats, in particular, can pack in the prebiotics. A bowl of plain oatmeal with fresh fruit and nut butter has soluble fiber and vitamin E that works to improve immunity and keep things moving in your gut. Dr. Berry adds that bacteria in the gut works to ferment the soluble fiber found in oats, which can lead to beneficial short-chain fatty acids in the colon and can potentially lower LDL cholesterol.
Sometimes also called sunchokes, these root vegetables are high in vitamins, potassium, iron, and fiber. But they’re most well known for the high amounts of prebiotic fiber present, which can help support health, glucose control, weight management, and overall health. Dr. Berry notes that Jerusalem artichokes are also a high FODMAP food (fermentable oligo-di-mono-saccharides and polyols). These foods are poorly absorbed in the small intestine and often rapidly fermented in the large intestine, he explains. Many people benefit from these foods as they support a healthy gut microbiome and provide prebiotics, but others are sensitive and can cause GI distress, he warns.
Onions, leeks, garlic, and scallions
You may hear about this group in reference to a low-FODMAP diet as well, along with dozens of other fruits, vegetables, and sugars. But, for those who don’t experience gastrointestinal issues from these foods, they can provide some much-needed prebiotics. Additionally, garlic contains antioxidants, vitamin C, selenium, and scallions have antioxidants that can prevent inflammation, more fiber than you’d expect (5% of the daily allowance), and a good amount of vitamin C.
Packed with inulin fiber, dandelion greens have been shown to reduce constipation, boost the immune system, offer anti-inflammatory properties, and increase good gut bacteria. If you’ve never tried the green, give this Sautéed Dandelion Toast recipe a try.
Related to the dandelion family, research has found that chicory is rich in prebiotic inulin fiber, which can improve digestive, bowel function, and relieve constipation. Dr. Berry notes that chicory root is often added to processed foods like fiber bars, gluten-free foods, and some cereals. Though this is used to increase the fiber content and naturally sweeten products, the ingredient can sometimes cause unwanted GI distress in some people.
Similar to the benefits of other veggies like broccoli and leafy greens, cabbage has a high amount of fiber, vitamin K, vitamin A, and iron. Research has shown that cabbage (specifically raw cabbage) offers prebiotics to the gut that can improve gut health.
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