Years of antibiotic use, eating sugar-laden food, and eschewing microbe-feeding prebiotic fiber foods are all making you fat—but not for the reason you think. This pattern of poor eating has armed the bad bacteria who live in your gut with the weapons they need to overtake the good guys: probiotics.
And when your good gut bugs are depleted, they not only won’t be able to fend off weight-inducing inflammation, they also can’t help you keep your metabolism humming, your immune system healthy, and your mind keen. It’s why gut health is so important.
Research suggests that consuming more probiotic foods can help mend your gut and nourish your microbiome. Before we get into the best sources of probiotic foods, we’ll discuss what exactly probiotics are and how they can benefit you.
What are probiotics and probiotic foods?
Probiotics are live bacterial cultures that we consume naturally in fermented foods or in supplement form. They’re called “pro” because they’re believed to be beneficial to our health, although the science behind it has yet to prove how. (Or even if they are effective—as live probiotics often do not survive the harsh environment of the stomach—which is why the FDA has yet to approve using probiotic supplements to treat health problems.)
Are all fermented foods probiotic foods?
While we mentioned that probiotics are naturally found in fermented foods, it’s important to know that not all fermented foods are probiotic foods. That’s because fermentation describes a chemical process that can have different players and outcomes. Only the right components will produce probiotics and probiotic foods.
Take beer, for example. This alcoholic beverage goes through a fermentation process where yeast (which is not bacteria) ferment sugars into alcohol and carbon dioxide (bubbles). Some bacteria may find there way into certain beers (like sours, where the bacteria gives a signature tangy taste, according to NPR), but brewers actually try their best to decrease bacterial contamination during the brewing process, and there are no probiotic bacteria in beer. (Although, one group of scientists from the National University of Singapore is trying to make that happen.
How probiotics can benefit your health.
Research has shown that our gut microbes play a significant role in regulating our health, mental health, and weight.
And additional research has suggested a way we might mend this imbalance: by eating fermented foods full of probiotics (and by also cutting out bad-microbe-feeding sugars and loading up on prebiotics.)
Studies have found natural probiotics can help alleviate IBS and IBD symptoms, anxiety symptoms, reduces risk of eczema in infants, and may help reduce seasonal allergy symptoms.
Another major benefit of probiotics is that they may help regulate weight. A study published in the British Journal of Nutrition found that overweight women who were put on a calorie-restricted diet and given a probiotic supplement for 12 weeks showed significantly higher weight loss than those given a placebo.
A possible mechanism, described by a summary in the journal Gut, is that probiotic foods help rebalance your gut bugs by creating an environment where the good guys can regain strength. The A-lister usually mentioned is yogurt, but the probiotic foods we’re about to discuss go way beyond breakfast.
The best probiotic foods for gut health.
Now that you know the benefits, it’s time to load up your grocery cart!
Here are the 14 best sources of probiotic foods you can consume to get your gut back in check—and to win the battle once and for all.
1. Greek Yogurt
The most popular probiotic of the fermented foods family, yogurt is made by adding two strains of bacteria, Streptococcus thermophilus and Lactobacillus bulgaricus, into pasteurized milk. The milk thickens up from the lactic acid that’s produced by the bacteria, becoming the creamy product that you trust to build muscle.
But while most Greek yogurts can be a trusted source of protein, not all will provide probiotics. Some products are heat-treated after fermentation, which typically kills most of the beneficial active cultures, so be sure to check the label for the phrase “live active cultures.” And be sure to stay away from the ones with added sugars which will do more for the bad bacteria than they will for the good.
Kombucha is a slightly effervescent (aka it’s bubbly!) fermented foods-based drink made with black or green tea and a symbiotic culture of bacteria and yeast, known as a SCOBY. This functional food will only impart its probiotic benefits if it isn’t pasteurized, which means you should be purchasing a low-sugar refrigerated kombucha.
Although this smoothie-like dairy drink resides next to yogurt, if you have a dairy-intolerance, this might be your better pick. That’s because kefir has been found to counteract the effects of the milk’s stomach-irritating lactose: Ohio State University researchers found that knocking back this fermented drink can reduce bloating and gas brought on by lactose consumption by 70 percent!
Kefir is a powerful, health-promoting probiotic food, according to a Frontiers in Microbiology review. What’s particularly promising about kefir as a probiotic food is that its bacteria have been found to colonize the intestinal tract, which makes them more likely to confer their healing benefits to your gut.
Kimchi is an Asian fermented foods veggie dish, made with cabbage, radishes, and scallions. That distinctive red color comes from a seasoned paste of red pepper, salted shrimp, or kelp powder. The unique strains found in kimchi won’t just heal your gut, they might also help you stay slim: Researchers at Kyung Hee University in Korea induced obesity in lab rats by feeding them a high-fat diet and then fed one group of them Lactobacillus brevis, the culture strain found in kimchi. The probiotic suppressed the diet-induced increase in weight gain by 28 percent!
We love miso, and you will too when you hear of its gut-friendly benefits! You’re probably familiar with it in the appetizer miso soup you get in restaurants, but you can also find this traditional Japanese paste in supermarkets. It’s made by fermenting soybeans with salt and koji—a fungus called Aspergillus oryzae. Not only is it a complete protein (meaning it contains all 9 essential amino acids) because it comes from soybeans, but miso also stimulates the digestive system, strengthens the immune system, and reduces the risk of multiple cancers.
Don’t let its association with hot dogs sully your opinion of this food. Sauerkraut is lacto-fermented cabbage, and it contains natural compounds that have potent cancer-fighting and belly-slimming properties. When unpasteurized, sauerkraut is rich in Lactobacillus bacteria—even more so than yogurt—which boosts the healthy flora in the intestinal tract, bolsters your immune system, and even improves your overall health. Mice fed a probiotic-rich sauerkraut extract had reduced cholesterol levels, found a study published in World Journal of Microbiology and Biotechnology. Again, examine the label before you pick up a kraut for probiotic purposes. Store-bought, shelf-stable sauerkrauts can be pasteurized and prepared using vinegar, which does not offer the beneficial bacteria of fermented foods, but mimics the same distinctive sour-taste which is traditionally produced by the fermented lactic acid. To get an authentic product, check out what the folks over at Farmhouse Culture are doing.
It might look funky, but natto is one of the healthiest foods for women—and here’s why: this Japanese dish of probiotic fermented soybeans is unique in that it’s the highest dietary source of vitamin K2, a vitamin which is important for cardiovascular and bone health as well as promoting skin elasticity to help prevent wrinkles. On top of that (and the reason it’s on this list), natto is a potent source of gut-healing probiotics. A healthy gut plus easting fermented foods can keep inflammation at bay, which researchers say may affect the health of our skin since many troubles like acne, eczema, and psoriasis stem from inflammation.
Pickles are another classic fermented foods veggie option. “But it’s important to distinguish that not all pickled vegetables are fermented,” say dieticians Willow Jarosh MS, RD, and Stephanie Clarke, MS, RD, co-owners of C&J Nutrition. “In order to get the health benefits from eating fermented foods, you’ll want to be sure that the pickled veggie you’re eating is, in fact, fermented—and not just pickled.” Shelf-stable products are the first sign a pickle is just pickled because the product would be pasteurized first, which kills off any bacteria—even the good ones. Make your own fermented pickles, and other veggies, at home with a starter, salt, and water.
10. Beet Kvass
The probiotic trend has uncovered products virtually unknown to American markets, which is why you’ve probably never heard of Kvass. This probiotic drink originated in Russia, traditionally made in a similar way to a yeast beer but with stale rye bread rather than barley. Beet Kvass, on the other hand, uses beets as the source of starch and whey to speed the lacto-fermentation process. The longer the beets are left to ferment, the more developed the flavor will be. Beets are already a great source of potassium and dietary fiber, so fermenting them amplifies their positive digestive properties even more.
11. Cottage Cheese
Like yogurt, not all cottage cheeses will contain live and active cultures. But one of the products that do is from a company called Good Culture. Though dairy products are packed with slow-digesting, muscle-building protein and have been shown to enhance probiotic absorption, this option might not be your best bet; Many cottage cheeses are full of sodium, which can cause bloating and put you at risk of hypertension when eaten in excess.
You’ll often seen tempeh as the vegan alternative to bacon—and, believe us, it’s much better for your gut. Tempeh is a fermented soy product made with a yeast starter that has a meaty, tender bite with a neutral flavor; it’s an open canvas for all your favorite seasonings. Besides the belly benefits, a standard 3-ounce serving of tempeh boasts 16 grams of protein and 8 percent of the day’s recommended calcium.
13. Soft and Aged Cheeses
Many cheeses are created by fermentation, but not all fermented cheeses contain probiotics. Aged, soft cheeses—such as cheddar, mozzarella, gruyere, gouda, parmesan, and swiss—are typically the only type which will maintain the beneficial bacteria. And another thing: these will have to be made from raw, unpasteurized milk. These cheeses start with adding a lactic acid bacterial culture to milk, which will form lactic acid and cause the milk to form curds and whey. The longer the cheese ages, the more beneficial bacteria for your belly.
14. Green Olives
Double martini, please—and by double we mean the olive. Salt-water brined olives undergo a natural fermentation, and it’s the acids produced by the lactic acid bacteria which are naturally present on the olive which give these little fruits their distinctive flavor. Two strains of live cultures, Lactobacillus plantarumand Lactobacillus pentosus, have been isolated in olives, and L. plantarumshows great potential for getting you that flat stomach you’re after: This strain can balance your gut bugs and decrease bloating, particularly in people with irritable bowel syndrome, according to a study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. Note that not all olives will provide you with probiotic benefits, as most store-bought olives are treated with lye, which is no home for delicate probiotics. Try these Fermented + Probiotic Olives from Olive My Pickle for a safe bet.