Nowadays, we hear like this a lot about the importance of a well-balanced gut microbiome. And for good reason! Gastroenterologists and dietitians agree: A healthy gut is linked to better digestion and regularity, better immune health, increased cognitive functioning, lower stress levels, and so much more.
When covering the gut-healthy nutrients to include in your diet, experts often preach the importance of eating plenty of fiber and probiotics. But there’s another form of bacteria that’s just as good for your gut as probiotics, meaning it’s definitely worth your attention: prebiotics, which feed probiotics into your gut.
“Probiotics are beneficial bacteria and prebiotics are food for these bacteria,” says Janine Whiteson, MS, RD. “Both are very important to human health, but each has different roles.” Whiteson explains that, in short, probiotics are live bacteria found in certain foods or supplements that provide numerous health benefits, but they must be fueled by prebiotics to work. Prebiotics come from different types of carbohydrates (mainly fiber) that humans cannot digest.
“Prebiotics and prebiotic foods help probiotics thrive. They are just as important [as probiotics] when it comes to keeping your gut microbiota healthy and helping to protect you from harmful bacteria and fungi. Prebiotics also help immune system functions, improve depression symptoms, help reduce inflammation in the body, and may even reduce the risk of some cancers,” says Whiteson.
How can we know if we are getting enough prebiotic foods in our diet?
There is no set or defined amount for taking prebiotics, but studies suggest that eating three to five grams of prebiotics per day may benefit gut health, according to Whiteson. “I always tell my clients that if they eat the FDA-recommended amount of dietary fiber, they’re probably getting enough prebiotics,” she says. “Getting plenty of fiber from fruits, vegetables, and whole grains and following a different diet with minimal amounts of unprocessed foods will help you get plenty of prebiotics without the need for supplements.
The 16 best prebiotic foods to stock up on for a healthy gut
Greek yogurt is an especially nutritious choice, because it’s high in both protein and prebiotics. “But that’s not all: Greek yogurt also contains probiotics,” says Laura Purdy, MD, MBA. “And you can’t beat that for convenience, because yogurt tends to come prepackaged in quantities that already contain the recommended serving.”
Garlic is an allium that has long been recognized for its many health benefits, “including anti-inflammatory, antibacterial, and cholesterol-improving effects,” says Dr. Purdy. “Garlic also directly enhances the growth of good bacteria in the gut. There isn’t really a particular portion recommended for garlic as it can be used liberally to season foods, so when it comes to cooking with this ingredient, the more the merrier.” (Just remember to tuck in a mint !)
Cocoa powder is rich in a variety of polyphenols, which have both anti-inflammatory and antioxidant effects. “This is another prebiotic substance that helps with the growth of intestinal bacteria and also helps to prevent the growth of harmful bacteria,” says Dr. Purdy. substances such as saturated fat, salt or sugar, it is important to pay attention to the serving size of those particular food items. And when shopping for chocolate, look for dark varieties with 70 percent cocoa or more for the most anti-inflammatory and gut-friendly benefits.
“Wheat bran is high in prebiotic fiber and can help with several digestive symptoms including bloating, pain, cramping and gas. Plus, it has antioxidant properties, which means eating wheat bran can also potentially reduce your risk of cancer,” says Dr. Purdy.
A medium-sized banana is a great prebiotic source, says Dr. Purdy. “Interestingly, green bananas, rather than yellow bananas, have a substance called resistant starch, which is harder to digest than other starches. This type of starch works much like you might think soluble fiber would work, and has some associations with lowering blood sugar, boosting energy levels, and aiding digestion. Green bananas are a super source of resistant starch and a great prebiotic food.”
Whiteson recommends consuming a half cup of onions a day in soups, stews, salads…basically mixed into anything. “They’re very high in antioxidants and flavonoids, which help protect against cancer, but they’re also high in inulin and prebiotics.”
Blackberries and blueberries
Whether you choose fresh or frozen berries, Whiteson says you can’t go wrong with a cup (or more) a day. “Studies have shown that these berries can greatly improve gut and colon bacteria and fight inflammation, which is a major cause of disease,” she adds.
Again, a serving is one cup, cooked or raw. “The fiber in kale provides prebiotic fuel for the good bacteria in our large intestines and is high in both soluble and insoluble fiber to help with bowel regularity,” says Whiteson.
Asparagus contains inulin, which Whiteson says is helpful in balancing glucose and energy levels. “Asparagus also works to help quell inflammation, as it’s high in antioxidants and may help prevent some chronic diseases,” he says. Whiteson recommends one fresh or frozen cup a day.
Oats and barley
To get a healthy amount of prebiotics, opt for a half-cup a day of cooked oats or barley. “They’re loaded with prebiotics called beta-glucan, which can help lower ‘bad’ LDL cholesterol and promote healthy growth of good gut bacteria,” says Whiteson.
Chickpeas, lentils and beans
Go for two-thirds of a cup, says Carrie Gabriel, MS, RDN. “Chickpeas, lentils and beans are high in fiber and are a great choice for those looking to increase their prebiotic fiber intake.”
Gabriel recommends a portobello mushroom or half a cup of chopped white mushrooms. “You use them as a hamburger substitute or in a skillet. Mushrooms are high in beta-glucan and other indigestible carbohydrates, making them a great prebiotic choice.”