Let’s play a game of word association! If I say “probiotics,” you say…what? You might say, “healthy,” “supplement,” or even “antibiotics.” But I’ll bet many would automatically reply, “yogurt.” Yogurt is a particularly famous source of probiotics, but what if you don’t like it? Are probiotics really that important? Well, yes. Not to sound hyperbolic or anything, but they’re possibly the most influential piece of the health puzzle that we are only just starting to comprehend. If you’re not convinced, this article is for you. Probiotics are live bacteria that colonize in our guts, mostly the colon. We actually have 10 times more bacterial cells than human cells in our bodies! However, if we aren’t diligent about caring for these beneficial bacteria, they won’t survive in our intestines, and the pathogenic (disease-causing) bacteria will start to take over. Unfortunately for us, the Western trifecta of chronically high stress, widespread antibiotic use, and highly processed, low fiber diets creates a hostile environment for these bacteria. So, we definitely need a healthy gut, and one of the biggest ways we do that is by regularly populating it with probiotics.
Before you reach for that cup of yogurt, however, consider this:
Yogurt can be part of a nutritious diet, but too often it’s glorified, low fat, liquid ice cream. Plus, some people can’t or choose not to eat dairy, and others may simply dislike yogurt’s texture. For this last group, there are some non-yogurt, probiotic dairy products (kefir, yakult, and filmjölk) but you do still have to keep an eye on that sugar.
In reality, dairy is far from the only game in town.
Sure, you could try a non-dairy yogurt, but these are often low in protein and high in sugar; or you could go for a supplement, but these are frighteningly unregulated and pretty expensive. There are much more exciting ways to get your probiotic fix! Fermentation is the process that turns milk into yogurt, and cultures across the globe have been finding their own ways to ferment foods for centuries that have nothing to do with dairy. In Russia, they drink kvas, made from fermented beets or grains. You can buy it here, but many brands are little more than sugar water, so make sure you’re getting the real thing. And of course, there is Kombucha, the fizzy, yeasty tea that anyone who’s anyone has tried. Its Chinese origins date back 2,000 years, and it’s still trending strong today. If you’re feeling brave, you can try making your own. In Germany, there is sauerkraut (which actually dates back to the Mongols in China) and in Korea there is kimchi, both fermented cabbage. Be wary of commercial, canned varieties, as the bacteria don’t often survive the processing. Making your own is quite easy; or you can seek out craft varieties in stores. Then there is fermented soy: namely, miso and tempeh. These products confer health benefits (including probiotics) beyond non-fermented soy products, like edamame and tofu. Miso can add a wonderful umami flavor to dishes, while tempeh offers a tasty alternative to animal protein.
But wait! That’s not all!
We can kick back probiotic foods all day, ‘erry day, but if we don’t set up a nice, cozy environment in our colons for the bacteria to live, they won’t stay very long. This is where prebiotics come into play. Prebiotics are non-digestible plant compounds which stimulate the growth and activity of our little, bacterial friends. A lot of companies have isolated these prebiotics to fortify their products; you’ll see them in the ingredients list as inulin, lactulose, maltodextrin and wheat dextrin, acacia gum, arabinose, and fructo- and galacto-oligosaccharides. These ingredients may not be tolerated in large amounts, and besides, why not just get them from the foods they’re naturally found in? You can find inulin in garlic, onions, and Jerusalem artichokes; oligosaccharides in bananas, berries, and legumes; dextrin in whole grains, especially wheat; and arabinose in nuts and seeds, to name a few. Together, these probiotics and prebiotics are known as synbiotics because they’re far more powerful in combination than either one is on its own. Healthy bacteria also thrive when you generally practice good self-care. Keep your diet high in fiber and based largely in whole, minimally processed foods. Find ways to destress and break from sedentary routines. Oh, and you might consider eating some high quality dark chocolate, because your gut bacteria may in fact be chocoholics, too!
To make a long story short: nope, you definitely do not need yogurt to have a healthy gut.
Sip on some kombucha while making your own sauerkraut. Stir some cocoa powder and sliced bananas into your oatmeal. Basically, eat a high-fiber, plant-based diet, with a few fermented foods thrown in, and you (and your gut) will be just fine!