Eat foods that feed your good bacteria
You know about boosting your microbiome with probiotics — beneficial bacteria found in yogurt, kefir, kimchi and sauerkraut — which have been shown to have health benefits, such as improving digestion, immune health and mood.
But what are prebiotics? Those are the nutrients in food that feed your gut bacteria, and they may be the next rising microbiome star.
“We probably don’t even realize when we’re eating them,” said Andrea Azcarate-Peril, Ph.D., director of the Microbiome Core Facility at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. “However, in the near future we’ll be hearing a lot more about how prebiotics can improve gut health.”
Do probiotics colonize my gut?
Claims that probiotics colonize your gut imply that good bacteria can displace the bad ones in your digestive tract permanently. That’s not the case. Probiotics modify your microbiota temporarily.
Think of these bugs as helpful tourists, dropping in and doing good things while they pass through before taking the G.I. highway out of town. (True colonization — where bacteria move in for good — happens in infancy.) If you stop consuming probiotics, your microbiome will shift back in a few weeks.
So, I’m stuck with the gut I’ve got?
Not necessarily. You can improve your microbiome by encouraging the good bacteria you already harbor to grow with prebiotic foods like wheat, walnuts, asparagus, artichokes, bananas, legumes, onion and garlic.
How do prebiotics shift your microbiome?
Prebiotics aren’t one specific type of nutrient, but rather any compound that feeds your microbiome. This includes indigestible carbs (like inulin, found in wheat, and resistant starch, in legumes) and also polyphenols (plant compounds with antioxidant properties, like those found in walnuts).
While prebiotic supplements do exist, experts recommend getting your prebiotics from food, since they may work synergistically with other plant compounds.
When you eat these foods, your good gut flora feast on the prebiotics and multiply. This crowds out bad bugs and makes the good guys produce short-chain fatty acids, substances that may help control appetite, bolster immunity and even protect against cancer.
What’s better: probiotics or prebiotics?
It’s too soon to say if one is better than the other. Plenty of research supports embracing probiotics — they can introduce strains of helpful bacteria that your gut may be lacking, at least temporarily.
But know that it’s not the only way to promote gut health. Regularly feeding the microbes you already have with prebiotics is also key.
EatingWell is a magazine and website devoted to healthy eating as a way of life. Online at eatingwell.com.
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