Discover the top 25 superfoods for gut health, digestion, and reducing inflammation.
Have you been hearing about “gut health” but not sure what the hype is all about?
Or maybe you already know how important gut health is and you’re wondering what the BEST superfoods for gut health are.
In this article, you’ll learn what gut health is, how it impacts overall health, and the top science-based foods that support a healthy gut.
Keep reading so you can start incorporating these foods into your diet today, or download the PDF list right away!
What are Superfoods?
The term “superfood” is used to describe nutrient-dense foods that provide health benefits when consumed.
These foods are rich in vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, or other compounds that are associated with improved health or reduced risk of disease (1).
When referring to superfoods for gut health, this includes foods that nourish the microbiome, promote the growth of good bacteria, and help to reduce the number of harmful bacteria that are associated with illness and disease.
Why is a Healthy Gut Important?
Think of the microbiome as the healthy bacteria that live in your digestive tract.
Having a high population of these beneficial bacteria, also known as microbes or gut microbiota, is associated with better physical and mental health, while low levels are linked to a greater risk of illness.
A healthy microbiome plays an important role in digestive health, the immune system, energy levels, weight management, and disease risk.
Research suggests that imbalances in the microbiome can contribute to weight gain, diabetes, inflammatory bowel disease (IBD), irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), heart disease, and other chronic diseases (2).
In addition, the bacteria in your gut impact your mood and mental health.
For example, 95% of serotonin is produced by the bacteria in our gut. Serotonin is known as our “feel good hormone” that stabilizes mood and promotes feelings of happiness.
Research shows that depression and anxiety are related to an imbalance in the microbiome since the bacteria level in your gut impacts neurotransmitter activity in the brain (3).
The good news is that you can optimize your gut health by eating the right types of foods, which you’ll discover below!
Best Superfoods for Gut Health
A combination of prebiotics and probiotics are the foods that nourish your gut. Below are some of the top sources for a balanced microbiome:
Prebiotics serve as the “fuel” for our good gut bacteria. Consuming prebiotics allows your microbiome to grow in number and diversity, which is essential for optimal gut health.
A diet that lacks prebiotics leads to a decline in healthy gut bacteria and an increase in bad bacteria, which we want to avoid as this is associated with a greater risk of disease.
List of Prebiotic Foods
Prebiotics are the “food” sources that your healthy gut bacteria eat to grow in number and diversity.
Prebiotics include most fiber-containing foods. Eating a variety of fruits, vegetables, leafy greens, nuts, seeds, whole grains, and plant-based foods can help ensure that you’re feeding your gut the foods it thrives on!
On the other hand, a diet that’s low in dietary fiber will “starve off” your beneficial gut bacteria and contribute to poor gut health and leaky gut.
In addition to supporting the microbiome, prebiotic foods have an anti-inflammatory effect due to their antioxidant properties.
Antioxidants are plant compounds that reduce inflammation and oxidative stress by destroying free radicals. Refer to my Anti-Inflammatory Foods List for more information on the best foods for reducing inflammation.
Here are some of the top prebiotic superfoods for gut health:
Nuts are an excellent prebiotic source for gut health. This is due to their high fiber content and polyphenols, both of which are fuel sources for our gut flora.
In one study, almonds, pistachios, hazelnuts, and pecans were found to have the highest concentrations of fiber and polyphenols, resulting in a significant increase in beneficial bacteria when consumed for 6 weeks (4).
Nuts are a great plant-based source of protein, fiber, and healthy fats to include in a healthy diet.
Since each type of nut contains different beneficial nutrients, variety is key. Aim for 1 oz., or approximately one small handful of nuts daily, to reap the benefits.
Another superfood for gut health is oatmeal. Oatmeal is rich in β-glucan, a type of soluble fiber with prebiotic properties.
β-glucan is fermented, or broken down, by the bacteria in our gut to produce beneficial compounds such as short-chain fatty acids, which promote the growth and maintenance of a healthy gut microbiome (5).
In addition to supporting gut health, the soluble fiber in oats also plays a major role in healthy digestion and in lowering cholesterol and blood sugar levels.
Enjoy oatmeal as a hot breakfast cereal or granola, added to smoothies, or ground into oat flour for baking.
Flaxseeds are a wonderful source of soluble fiber and polyphenols, making them a superfood for gut health.
Lignans are the primary type of polyphenol found in flaxseeds, offering antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties that are associated with reduced risk of disease.
For example, studies show that lignans may protect against certain cancers, including breast and colon cancer, by slowing the growth of tumors (6).
Flaxseeds are also rich in omega-3 fats, which have anti-inflammatory properties to promote a healthy gut environment.
There are two varieties of flaxseed: brown and golden. Both types of flaxseed are similar in fiber and omega-3 fat content, though brown flaxseed is slightly higher in antioxidants.
Flaxseed can be purchased as whole seeds, ground or milled, or as flaxseed oil.
Try whole seeds on salads for an extra crunch, or add ground flaxseed to oatmeal, smoothies, baked goods, or yogurt to boost the prebiotic content of your meal.
- Dark Chocolate
Yes, you read that right! Cocoa, the primary ingredient in chocolate, is rich in flavanols which act as a prebiotic source for your gut bugs.
Studies show that the flavanols in cocoa promote the growth of beneficial gut bacteria, including Lactobacillus and Bifidobacterium, while also inhibiting the growth of harmful bacteria.
Flavanols also have anti-inflammatory properties, lowering inflammation in the gut to keep your microbes thriving (7).
When selecting chocolate, keep the following factors in mind to support gut health:
- Choose chocolate that is at least 72% cocoa (the darker the better). The higher the percentage of cocoa indicates a higher concentration of prebiotic flavanols.
- Low in Sugar: look for chocolate that contains the lowest amount of added sugar (preferably less than 6-8 grams of added sugar per serving). Sugar should always be listed after the cocoa on the ingredient list to indicate that the product contains more cocoa than sugar. Here’s a comparison of the added sugar in 72%, 86%, and 92% chocolate (8):
- 72%: 6 grams added sugar
- 86%: 3 grams added sugar
- 92%: 1 gram added sugar
- NOT Dutch processed or processed with alkali: cocoa that’s processed with alkali (also known as “Dutch processed”) lowers the flavanol (prebiotic) content. Choose chocolate and cocoa products that are not processed with alkali, which you can find on the ingredient list (9).
Here’s 10 more natural prebiotic sources that are microbiome superfoods:
- Jerusalem artichokes
- Dandelion greens
- Chia seeds
- Black beans
- Olive oil
- Green plantains
- Chicory root
Now let’s look at the top probiotic sources for gut health.
Probiotics are the beneficial bacteria found in your gut. In addition to eating prebiotic foods to help your probiotic gut bacteria grow in number and diversity, you can also eat certain food sources that contain probiotic bacteria.
Eating probiotic-rich foods (or taking probiotic supplements) adds to the probiotic “pool” in your gut, increasing the levels of healthy bacteria found in your microbiome.
In addition, probiotics have the ability to produce digestive enzymes that aid in breaking down foods to increase nutrient absorption.
List of Probiotic Foods
In order to be classified as a probiotic, a food must contain live microorganisms that provide a health benefit (10).
In general, probiotic sources include fermented foods such as yogurt, kimchi, kombucha, aged cheeses, sauerkraut, miso, and brewers yeast.
Probiotics may be listed on the ingredient list as “live and active cultures,” or as the names of the specific strains of bacteria that are found in that food.
Consuming a variety of these probiotic strains is the best way to add diversity to your microbiome. Aim to include probiotic food sources daily for optimal gut health.
Here are some of the top probiotic superfoods to add to your diet:
Yogurt can be classified as a probiotic because it contains live bacteria that improve digestive health. But does all yogurt contain probiotics? The short answer is no.
All yogurt starts out as a probiotic because it contains live strains of Lactobacillus bulgaricus and Streptococcus thermophilus before processing.
However, in heat-treated yogurt, these strains are killed during processing, which means the yogurt no longer contains live cultures and is no longer considered a probiotic. These yogurts will be labeled “heat treated.”
If yogurt is not heat-treated after fermentation, it will still contain adequate levels of these microbes to be considered a probiotic (11).
To ensure that you’re choosing yogurt that contains probiotics, look for yogurt that reads “contains live and active cultures” on or below the ingredient list.
Yogurt labeled as “made with active cultures” does not suffice, since all yogurt is initially made with live and active cultures before processing, but these would be destroyed if the yogurt was heat-treated.
Many manufacturers add additional live strains of bacteria to the yogurt after processing, which also ensures that the yogurt meets the criteria of a probiotic.
Other strains that are commonly added to yogurt include B. Lactis, L. Acidophilus, and L. casei.
Make sure you’re choosing yogurt that is low in added sugar, ideally with less than 6-8 grams of added sugar per serving.
Greek yogurt also offers up to 3x more protein compared to traditional yogurt, which will keep you feeling full longer and support weight management.
Boost the gut benefits by adding prebiotic-rich flaxseed, chopped nuts, and/or low-sugar granola to your yogurt!
Kefir is a probiotic beverage made by fermenting kefir grains with milk. Kefir grains naturally contain a multitude of bacteria and yeast strains, which account for the probiotic properties of this beverage.
In fact, kefir contains higher concentrations of probiotics than yogurt, due to the greater number and diversity of microbial strains in kefir.
Studies show that kefir consumption significantly increases beneficial bacteria and reduces the amount of harmful bacteria in the gut, due to its antimicrobial properties (12).
This helps to restore the balance of the microbiome for digestive health.
Enjoy kefir on its own as a beverage, blended into smoothies, used in dips and dressings, or in baked goods. Similarly to yogurt, choose kefir products that contain the least amount of added sugars and other additives.
Sauerkraut is made by fermenting cabbage which produces lactic acid bacteria in the process.
The probiotic bacteria in sauerkraut are known to improve digestion, immune function, and the ability of gut microbes to fight off disease-causing bacteria (13).
One study found that sauerkraut fermented with lactic acid bacteria improves IBS symptoms (14).
This is likely due to improvements in digestion that are linked to the lactic acid bacteria in sauerkraut, as well as the prebiotic properties of cabbage which enhance the diversity of the microbiome.
Sauerkraut is a good source of prebiotic fiber and vitamin C while being low in calories. However, finding sauerkraut that contains probiotics depends on the processing method.
Tips for choosing sauerkraut with probiotics (15):
- Choose raw and unpasteurized: most canned and jarred sauerkrauts that you find on the shelf at the grocery store are pasteurized using heat, which destroys the probiotic bacteria. Look for sauerkraut that is labeled “raw,” or “unpasteurized,” which will be located in the refrigerated section of the supermarket.
- Does not contain vinegar: real sauerkraut is fermented using only cabbage, water, and salt. If you see vinegar on the ingredient list rather than salt, this indicates that the cabbage was preserved using vinegar, but the cabbage has not been fermented and thus does not contain probiotics. Other spices such as caraway, cumin, etc. are okay because these are used to add flavor to the sauerkraut without impacting the probiotic content.
- No added sugars: adding sugar is not part of the natural fermentation process for sauerkraut, so added sugars will only contribute empty-calories. Studies also show that sugar inhibits the growth of the beneficial bacteria in your gut, which is another reason to choose sauerkraut without added sugar (16).
- Aged Cheeses
Some cheeses (but not all) contain probiotic bacteria. This depends on the type of bacteria that are able to survive the cheesemaking and aging process of the cheese.
One study demonstrated that lactic acid bacteria survived throughout the cheesemaking and aging process of cheddar cheese, verifying that cheddar contains probiotics (17).
In addition to cheddar cheese, Parmesan, Swiss, mozzarella, and Gouda have also been found to provide probiotics.
Some cheeses will also be labeled to contain “live and active cultures,” which will also indicate that the cheese has probiotics.
Beware that cheese is high in calories, sodium, and saturated fat. There remains controversy over the effect of saturated fat on health.
Some studies show that high intakes of saturated fat increase LDL-cholesterol levels and the risk of heart disease (18). Other studies have found that regular consumption of saturated fat from cheese actually lowers cholesterol levels (19).
Moderation is always key. Make sure that you are sticking to a proper serving size which is around 1 oz. or ¼ cup of cheese. Cheese also contains beneficial nutrients such as calcium and phosphorus, which are important for bone health.
Here’s 7 more probiotic sources to try:
- Sourdough bread
Prebiotic and probiotic sources can both be considered superfoods for gut health, as they contribute to a healthy microbiome.
Prebiotics are the food sources that your gut bacteria eat to grow and maintain a healthy microbiome. In general, prebiotics include fiber-rich foods like fruits, vegetables, whole grains, nuts, and seeds.
Eating a plant-based diet that’s high in both soluble and insoluble fiber is a great way to support the digestive system and improve overall gut health.
Some of the best prebiotic superfoods include nuts, oatmeal, flaxseed, and chocolate.
Probiotics are the actual living microorganisms that are found in your gut. Eating foods that contain probiotics adds to the total number and diversity of bacteria found in your microbiome.
Probiotic sources that serve as superfoods for the gut include yogurt, kefir, sauerkraut, and some aged cheeses.
The best way to balance your microbiome and support good gut health is to eat a variety of prebiotic foods and at least one probiotic source daily.
Choosing only one type of prebiotic or probiotic superfood will not offer the benefits that variety will, as eating different nutrient-rich foods is the best way to receive a wide range of nutrients that your body and gut need to thrive.
Now that you know the importance of a healthy gut on overall health, and you’ve learned about some of the top superfoods for gut health, you can begin incorporating these foods into your diet. Your gut will thank you!
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If you’re looking for more superfoods for gut health, grab my FREE 7 Benefits of Bone Broth Guide. Bone broth is rich in amino acids that help to heal, repair, and strengthen the lining of the GI tract.