Probiotic, prebiotic, and symbiotic foods explored

Gut microbiome research is an extremely exciting topic with potential for profound implications on our health, but currently most of the research on this topic is very much in its infancy and often misunderstood. We aren’t really sure how many of the probiotics we consume survive (or if at all) or which strains are able to survive through the digestion process, especially once it reaches our stomach acid. Our stomach acid is extremely acidic to aid in digestion and prevent food-borne illness, but this may also kill off bacteria in the stomach. Some small studies have shown that some of the probiotics ingested did make it though the entire digestive process, but their needs to be larger studies done on this topic to form a better understanding. The good news is you should keep eating probiotic foods as they offer many additional nutrition benefits such as fiber, vitamins, minerals, and possibly other benefits that we have yet to discover.

Probiotic Foods

There are many foods that we eat on a daily basis that we may or may not have realized are filled with bacteria, micronutrients, and/or fiber. These are fermented foods such as yogurt, keifer, buttermilk, aged cheese, kimchi, sauerkraut, miso, tempeh, sour pickles, dark chocolate, soy milk, olives, and kombucha. If you are buying yogurt or keifer you want to make sure that the label on the product specifies that there are “live and active cultures” and that the specific strains are listed. Just because something says yogurt it doesn’t mean that the strains are alive (for example yogurt covered pretzels). If they aren’t alive you likely aren’t getting the benefit that you are seeking—assuming that some of the live probiotics survive the digestive system.

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Personally I’m a big fan of eating my probiotics rather than taking a probiotic supplement most of the time. There are a few exceptions, which will be discussed in my probiotic supplement post. Fermented foods also can give you a wider variety of beneficial bacteria and offer more nutrients at a far more cost effective alternative. They are easy to make at home if you decide that is something you would want to try or you can buy them at the store if you prefer.

What’s more exciting, is that eating fermented food has been shown to improve the nutritional quality of the food, making certain nutrients more bioavailable and creating stronger antioxidant properties. Fermented foods are naturally full of probiotics and prebiotics in the form of fiber or sugar.

My husband and I thoroughly enjoy making our own sauerkraut (pictured above), do chua (pickled carrots and daikon pictured below), kim chi, and more recently kombucha and soy milk. Not only is fermented food delicious, but it’s a wonderful opportunity to learn through trial and error what works and what doesn’t work for you. I also feel more connected to what I’m consuming which gives me a different perspective on food. And not only that, it’s super quick and easy to do—most of the process of making the food is just watching and waiting for it to ferment.


Are there specific medical conditions in which I shouldn’t eat fermented foods?

  • If you have an overgrowth of yeast. In this case fermented foods can actually feed the bad bacteria.
  • If you are suffering from small intestinal bacterial overgrowth (SIBO) for the same reason mentioned above.
  • If you have a histamine intolerance you may not tolerate fermented foods.
  • If you are going through cancer treatment and your ANC (absolute neutrophil count) or WBC (white blood cell count) are extremely low and your doctor tells you to avoid them and/or if you are on a neutropenic diet. Always check with your oncologist if you are going through active treatment.

Prebiotic Foods

Now that you know how to find probiotics in the diet, we’ll focus on what to feed these bacteria in your gut to keep them happy. My guess is that you eat prebiotic foods regularly, but you may not have realized it. As discussed in the Probiotic/Prebiotic/Synbiotic post, prebiotics are the fuel for our beneficial bacteria and are found naturally in many foods or can be isolated from plants. In order to promote these bacteria to survive and procreate, we need to feed our bodies with certain foods. These include bananas, plantains, oatmeal, flax, barley, spinach, collard greens, chard, kale, mustard greens, chicory root, honey, acacia gum, leeks, onions, garlic, asparagus, artichokes, soybeans, whole grains, legumes, dandelion greens, root potatoes, rice, marine algae, brewer’s yeast, and specific mushrooms such as shitake, reishi, and maitake.

Almost all of these foods are high in fiber, which is beneficial in and of itself. Most American’s are only eating 15 grams of fiber and we need at least 25-38 grams per day. So just by eating more fiber/plant based foods you are making your gut microbes happy. If you can focus on eating at least a few of these a day then you are doing better than most people. You’re doing even better if you can pair your probiotic foods with some of your prebiotic foods to create a synbiotic. I try to eat yogurt or oatmeal at breakfast and pair it with berries or a banana to create this effect. The combinations are endless though depending on what you like to eat.

Currently, there is an abundant amount of research being conducted on the gut microbiome and promoting beneficial bacteria in the body so we will continue to uncover more information each day. The more we uncover, the more we will be able to give specific recommendations of how we can help our bodies promote a healthy environment. We do know exercise changes our gut microbiome for the better, as do prebiotic foods, so eating these foods regularly and consistent activity are my favorite things to recommend at this time. One final thing we do know is that people who eat more of a variety of plant species are more likely to have higher amounts of good bacteria in their gastrointestinal tracts. Even further reason to eat more fruits, veggies, beans, and whole grains with every meal.

For more updates, you can follow Survivors’ Table on Facebook. Thanks for joining me on this journey! – Danielle


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