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 foods are to heal your gut.
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!
What are Superfoods?
The term “superfood” is often used to describe nutrient-dense foods that provide benefits to our health. These foods are rich in certain 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, promoting the growth of beneficial bacteria and helping to stave off harmful bacteria that are associated with illness and disease.
Why is a Healthy Gut so Important?
Think of the microbiome as the healthy bacteria that live in your digestive system. Having a high population of these beneficial bacteria, also known as microbes, is associated with better physical and mental health, while low levels are linked to greater risk of illness.
A healthy microbiome plays a role in digestive health, immune function, weight management, and disease risk. Research suggests that the microbiome may play a role in the development of diabetes, inflammatory bowel disease (IBD), irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), heart disease, and other chronic diseases (2).
In addition, the bacteria in your gut impact mood and mental health. For example, the probiotic bacteria in our gut produce 95% of serotonin, the 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).
Top Foods for a Healthy Gut
A combination of prebiotics and probiotics are the foods that nourish your gut. Below are some of of the top superfood sources for a balanced microbiome:
Prebiotics serve as the “fuel” source for our healthy gut bacteria. Consuming prebiotics allows your microbiome to grow in number and diversity, which is optimal for gut health. A diet that lacks prebiotics will lead to a decline in healthy gut bacteria, which we want to avoid as this is associated with 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. Prebiotic foods include most fiber-containing foods. Eating a variety of fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds, whole grains, and plant-based foods can help ensure that you’re feeding your gut the foods it thrives on! Eating a low-fiber diet, on the other hand, will “starve off” your beneficial gut bacteria.
Here are some of the top prebiotic superfoods that your gut bugs love:
Nuts are an excellent prebiotic source for gut health. This is due to their high fiber and polyphenol content, both of which are fuel sources for the healthy bacteria in our gut.
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 and fiber 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 lowering cholesterol and blood glucose 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 prostate cancer, by slowing the growth of tumors (6).
Flaxseeds are also rich in omega-3 fats, which have anti-inflammatory properties to promote a suitable living environment for our gut bacteria to thrive.
There are two varieties of flaxseed: brown or 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 added crunch, or add ground flaxseed to oatmeal, smoothies, baked goods, or yogurt to boost the prebiotic content of your meal.
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).
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 adds to the probiotic “pool” in your gut, increasing the levels of healthy bacteria found in your microbiome.
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 microbes 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.” However, if a yogurt is not heat-treated after fermentation, it still contains adequate levels of these microbes to be considered a probiotic (11).
To easily 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 the result of fermenting cabbage which produces lactic acid bacteria in the process, a group of probiotic bacteria that provide benefits on health ranging from enhanced digestion, immune function, and 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 low in calories and provides prebiotic fiber from the cabbage. 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.
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. Some star 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 gut health is to eat a variety of prebiotic foods to fuel the bacteria that already exist in your gut (so they can grow in number and diversity), and to incorporate at least one probiotic food daily to continue adding to the “population” of bacteria in your gut.
Choosing only one type of prebiotic or probiotic superfood will not offer the benefits that variety will, as eating different 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 foods to support gut health, you can begin incorporating these foods into your diet. Your gut will thank you!
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