You’ve probably heard of prebiotics and probiotics, but do you know what they are? Nutrition research has pinpointed specific functional components of foods that may improve health, and prebiotics and probiotics are two such substances.
Although they are available as dietary supplements, it is not necessary to use special pills, potions, cleanses or other concoctions to incorporate prebiotics and probiotics into your diet. These “nutrition boosters” are natural ingredients in everyday food. In fact, Kristi King, MPH, RDN, LD, CNSC, spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, suggests focusing on the food sources first. “They are more readily available for absorption and digestion,” she says.
• Prebiotics are natural, non-digestible food components that are linked to promoting the growth of helpful bacteria in your gut. Simply said, they’re “good” bacteria promoters. That’s right, not all bacteria are bad. Prebiotics may improve gastrointestinal health as well as potentially enhance calcium absorption.
• Prebiotics include fructooligosaccharides, such as inulin and galactooligosaccharides. But rather than focusing on these lengthy words, include more prebiotics in your diet by eating these foods recommended by King: bananas, onions, garlic, leeks, asparagus, artichokes, soybeans and whole-wheat foods.
• Probiotics are the “good” bacteria — or live cultures — just like those naturally found in your gut. These active cultures help change or repopulate intestinal bacteria to balance gut flora. This functional component may boost immunity and overall health, especially GI health.
• To obtain more probiotics, King recommends enjoying fermented dairy foods including yogurt, kefir products and aged cheeses, which contain live cultures (for example, bifidobacteria and lactobacilli). Plus, she suggests some non-dairy foods which also have beneficial cultures, including kimchi, sauerkraut, miso, tempeh and cultured non-dairy yogurts.
• Ultimately, prebiotics, or “good” bacteria promoters, and probiotics, or “good” bacteria, work together synergistically. In other words, prebiotics are breakfast, lunch and dinner for probiotics, which restores and can improve GI health. Products that combine these together are called synbiotics. On the menu, that means enjoying bananas atop yogurt or stir-frying asparagus with tempeh is a win-win.
The bottom line: At a minimum, prebiotics and probiotics are keys for good gut health. “I think we are at an exciting time in research,” says King. “We’re finding that the gut flora is responsible for more than just digestion.”
For specific advice on obtaining prebiotics and probiotics for your own specific health needs, especially if you have GI issues or a weakened immune system, contact a registered dietitian nutritionist.