Probiotics are “good” or “friendly” bacteria that boost your intestinal and overall health. Your body needs these bacteria to keep your digestive system healthy and efficient.
Eating probiotic foods helps restore the natural balance of your gut bacteria and treat digestive problems ranging from constipation to diarrhea.
They may also help reduce abdominal bloating and flatulence caused by irritable bowel syndrome and symptoms associated with lactose intolerance.
Moreover, probiotics are useful when taking antibiotics, which tend to kill both good and bad bacteria indiscriminately, thus reducing the amount of good bacteria in the gut.
Probiotics are beneficial for your immune system as well, because they help maintain immune system activity. Some probiotics also help prevent allergies and eczema.
Studies suggest that probiotic dietary interventions can help alter mood, anxiety, stress and pain sensitivity. A 2014 study published in the British Journal of Nutrition found that probiotics can also help you lose weight.
Previous studies had already found that the intestinal flora of those who are obese is different from that of people who are lean and thin.
Here are the top 10 probiotic foods for your health.
Yogurt with “live and active cultures” is one of the best probiotic foods. It aids digestion and promotes a healthy environment of microorganisms in the digestive tract.
Moreover, in a 2013 study, UCLA (University of California, Los Angeles) researchers found that eating probiotic yogurt affected brain functioning in women. It particularly affected the activity of brain regions that control central processing of emotions and sensations.
You can eat a few cups of yogurt daily. When choosing probiotic yogurt, be sure to read the ingredient labels carefully to avoid products laden with high-fructose corn syrup and artificial sweeteners and flavors.
Preferably, opt for plain yogurt and add your own fruits for flavor. If you like Greek yogurt, bear in mind that although it is high in protein, it contains fewer strains of beneficial bacteria.
Kefir is another fermented dairy product containing a variety of probiotic bacteria, particularly lactobacilli and bifidus. Like yogurt, it has a tart and slightly sour taste, but it has a thinner consistency.
This complex probiotic is also rich in nutrients and antioxidants. In fact, it has more B vitamins, calcium, protein and probiotics than yogurt. Plus, it contains beneficial yeast that fight candida infections.
You can enjoy kefir as it is (preferably on an empty stomach), or add it to your smoothie or cereal instead of milk. You can find it in the dairy and natural foods section of your grocery store. You can also make this healthy drink yourself from kefir grains or a powdered kefir starter.
Note: Some people may experience temporary intestinal cramping and constipation when starting the use of kefir. You can begin with 1/8 of a cup and gradually work your way up. People generally drink 1 or 2 cups of kefir a day. It is usually suggested to take a break one day each week.
Made from fermented soybeans, miso soup is a Japanese staple. Miso can also be made with brown rice, barley and several other grains.
The fermentation that produces miso lasts from a few days to a year or more and adds millions of beneficial microorganisms to the final paste. It is also rich in B-complex vitamins, iron, calcium, magnesium, zinc and protective antioxidants.
Add miso to soups, stews or other cooked dishes after removing them from heat. You can also use it as a thick layer on toast, freshly cooked corn and in many other ways. You can find miso paste in almost any supermarket.
Note: Use miso in moderation because it is high in salt.
Sauerkraut is a popular side dish in Germany and other European countries. It is usually made from fermented cabbage but can also be prepared using certain other vegetables. Sauerkraut contains a variety of strains of probiotics to improve your gut flora.
In fact, it has been found that a 4- to 6-ounce serving of raw sauerkraut can contain almost 10 trillion bacteria. For a better understanding, you can say that 2 ounces of homemade sauerkraut contains more probiotics than a bottle of 100-count probiotic capsules.
Plus, it is a good source of vitamins B-complex, C and K, calcium, magnesium, iron, folate and antioxidants.
Sauerkraut is usually used as a condiment.
Note: Do not heat or cook sauerkraut. Use it raw. Plus, do not use it in high amounts as it can lead to bloating and flatulence and may also be harmful for thyroid functioning.
Kimchi is a popular side dish in Korea. It is commonly made with Chinese cabbage or other vegetables like eggplants, cucumbers and radishes that are fermented with many bacteria, the most dominant being probiotic lactic acid.
The main ingredient is mixed with a host of seasonings and ingredients like ginger, garlic, onion, hot pepper flakes, fish sauce and salt. The mixture is then allowed to ferment for a few days to a couple of weeks.
Research shows that in addition to probiotic properties, kimchi has anticancer, antiobesity, anticonstipation, antioxidant, anti-aging and cholesterol-reducing effects. It also promotes colorectal, immune, brain and skin health.
Kimchi is typically served with steamed rice. As it is spicy, it can be used as a condiment and added to soups, sandwiches and stir-fried dishes. To retain its probiotic effects and nutrients, make sure you do not overcook it.
You can find kimchi in the refrigerated section of Asian food stores and some supermarkets.
Often used as a replacement for meat in vegetarian and vegan meals, tempeh is another probiotic food that you can include in your diet. It is made from fermented cooked soybeans.
The process of fermentation turns it into patty form that resembles a meaty loaf or a burger patty and gives it a nutty flavor. In addition to probiotics, tempeh is a good source of protein, fiber and various nutrients.
Tempeh is usually steamed, sautéed or baked. You can also stir-fry it with vegetables or add it to sandwiches, burgers and salads. Most natural food stores and some grocery stores stock tempeh. You can easily prepare it yourself at home, too.
7. Kombucha Tea
Drinking kombucha tea is another effective way to restore your gut’s ecosystem. Consumed for thousands of years, this probiotic beverage is prepared from starter bacteria and yeast.
It is rich in vitamins, enzymes, antioxidants, organic acids and a number of chemical compounds, thus it offers several health benefits including aiding digestion, boosting the immune system, promoting detoxification, preventing cancer, preventing and treating arthritis, improving fibromyalgia symptoms, fighting depression and more.
The diverse health benefits of kombucha tea, however, have not been scientifically proven. In fact, it has been associated with serious health risks, especially if it is not prepared properly.
For instance, when brewed in a ceramic pot, it can cause lead to leach out of the ceramic glaze into the tea, leading to lead poisoning. It has even been reported to have caused occasional deaths.
Adults can drink 4 to 8 ounces of kombucha tea while children ages 5 to 15 can drink a couple of ounces a day. You can find it at health food stores and some grocery stores.
Note: Kombucha tea can cause side effects like stomach upset, nausea, vomiting, yeast infections and allergic reactions.
This tea is not recommended for children under age 5 and people suffering from weakened immune systems due to HIV/AIDS or other causes.
8. Sour Pickles
Naturally fermented sour pickles are a good source of dairy-free probiotics. Unlike traditional sour pickles, they are prepared from lactic-acid fermentation. Making your own sour pickles can be an easy and economical way to help maintain a healthy gut.
Soak some pickling cucumbers in ice cold water for 30 minutes to remove any dirt, then pack them in a quart jar. Add a few garlic cloves, a sprig of dill and a few black peppercorns.
Then, fill the jar with enough brine to cover the cucumbers. To make the brine, dissolve 2 tablespoons of sea salt in 4 cups of water.
You may want to use hot water for dissolving the salt completely, but make sure you allow the solution to cool fully before pouring it into the jar.
Loosely cap the jar or cover it with a cloth and leave it on the counter for at least 3 days. When the cucumbers have soured to your liking, store your sour pickles in the refrigerator. Check the jar daily to ensure that the cucumbers remain submerged in brine.
You can ferment other vegetables like organic carrots, beets, cabbage leaves, zucchini, green onions, onions, garlic, broccoli, kale and bell peppers in the same way.
For seasoning, you can also use hot peppers, bay leaves, dried chili peppers, fresh basil, rosemary, mint, thyme, oregano and other herbs and spices.
For fermentation, you can use table salt, sea salt or whey. Sour pickle varieties brined in vinegar do not offer probiotic benefits because they do not encourage the growth of beneficial bacteria.
You can enjoy 1 to 2 ounces of sour pickles or cultured vegetables with each meal.
Micro-algae are one of the ocean’s foods with immune-boosting, cancer-fighting, anti-inflammatory and detoxifying properties.
They help relieve fatigue, boost energy and manage problems like Type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure and cardiovascular disease. They include ocean-based plants like spirulina, chorella and blue-green algae that support your internal microflora.
Micro-algae increase lactobacillus and bifidobacteria in your digestive tract and are rich in nutrients like chlorophyll, beta-carotene, iron, calcium, magnesium, potassium, iodine, protein, essential amino acids and fatty acids. As it contains iodine, it may not be suitable for those with hyperthyroidism.
Spirulina is the most common micro-algae found in most health food stores and some supermarkets in the form of a green powder. Use it as a small, healthy addition to your diet by adding it to your juicing and smoothie recipes.
Start with small amounts like 1 teaspoon and gradually increase it up to 1 tablespoon daily. Alternatively, you can take micro-algae supplements after consulting your doctor for proper dosage and suitability.
Buttermilk is an amazing superfood. It is a thin liquid leftover from churning cream when making butter. Both traditional as well as cultured buttermilk are rich in many beneficial gut bacteria that aid digestion. This tasty tart drink also contains vitamins A, D and B12, calcium, selenium and protein.
You can flavor your buttermilk with roasted cumin, black salt and other spices and enjoy drinking it. You can also add it to salad dressings. People add it to baked goods as well, but this tends to destroy the probiotics in it.
Other Sources of Probiotics: In addition to the above-mentioned foods, natto, poi, sourdough bread, ginger beer and some soft cheeses (Gouda, for example) also contain probiotics.
Some companies also add probiotics to food and drinks like some juices, milk, soy drinks, cottage cheese and even dark chocolates.
Plus, you can give a boost to your probiotics by eating prebiotic foods like bananas, oatmeal, honey, artichokes and legumes. Simply put, prebiotics are food for the beneficial bacteria.
Also, you can supply probiotics to your body through a probiotic supplement. Doctors usually prescribe different types of probiotics containing different strains and concentrations of bacteria, depending on your condition.
Expert Answers (Q&A)
Answered by Ms. Malina Malkani (RDN)
Are bananas and apple cider vinegar a good source of probiotics?
Neither bananas nor apple cider vinegar contain probiotics, but both do contain prebiotics. Probiotics and prebiotics work together as a team to contribute to gut health.
Probiotics are live microbes found in certain foods that help to ferment, decompose and digest particular foods in the GI tract. Prebiotics are essentially food for the probiotics. They help stimulate and activate probiotic growth.
What can be the possible side-effects of probiotics?
Probiotic-rich foods are generally recognized as safe for everyone. With regard to probiotics supplements, most noted side effects are minor and only affect a small percentage of the population, such as a temporary increase in gas and bloating.
However, the National Institute of Health does warn that people with underlying health issues such as a debilitated immune system may be advised to avoid probiotic supplements which can result in serious infections.
Do probiotics aid in weight loss?
Maybe, maybe not. The effects of probiotics on weight loss seem to vary between individuals and differ depending on the strain and type of probiotic.
There is some evidence suggesting that a certain strain of bacteria can reduce weight gain on a high-calorie diet, however some probiotics may even cause weight gain. The bottom line is that more research is needed.
Do probiotics help with recurrent UTI in females?
Although there have been a few studies showing that probiotic use could prevent UTI occurrence, research is limited and significant conclusions have not been made.
What are the best sources of probiotics?
Food sources may be the best source of probiotics since they can also deliver additional healthy nutrients. Naturally occurring probiotics are found in foods such as yogurt, kefir and fermented foods like kombucha, kimchi and sauerkraut.
Probiotic supplements are designed to deliver a certain amount of specific bacteria to the gut, however, not all probiotic supplements contain the same strain or amount of bacteria.
Please provide some additional tips on including probiotics in our daily diet for the benefit of our readers.
For yogurt and kefir products to include probiotics benefits, they must be labeled with “live and active cultures”. A good goal when shopping for these products is to choose those with the smallest amounts of added sugars. Some soybean products such as miso, natto and tempeh also contain probiotics.
Additionally, some shelf-stable, packaged foods like cereal and cookies now have added probiotics, but the potency isn’t guaranteed – given the potential for added sugars in these products, they may not be the best choice.
About Ms. Malina Malkani, MS, RDN, CDN: Malina owns a New York-based private practice and nutrition consulting company focused on helping moms provide more nutrient-dense, minimally processed whole foods for their kids.
Malina is also the Director of Nutrition at Rejuvenan Global Health, a personal health and telemedicine platform, a National Media Spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics and a mom of three young kids.