So much of our daily health and emotional state hinges on how our body is reacting to the foods we put in it. A day of bad digestion and bloating can ruin your day. Over the past few years, fermented foods and the probiotics they contain have become a large part of the conversation about how to improve digestion. In fact, a Byrdie article from 2015 stated that fermented foods were “so hot right now.”
As a refresher, fermented foods are products “that have been left to sit and steep until the sugars and carbs become bacteria-boosting agents,” says natural foods expert Annalea Krebs, CEO of Social Nature, a product sampling community that connects people to natural wellness products. "Consuming fermented whole foods, such as sauerkraut and kefir, goes way back to the diet of our ancestors, but they’ve seen a reemergence due to a plethora of research showing fermented foods provide a potent source of probiotics, which are key for immunity, digestion, disease protection, and even emotional health."
But knowing that fermented foods help improve digestion is only half the story. The other half is understanding exactly how they function in the body and then learning how to incorporate these seemingly bizarre items (kefir?) into our everyday diets. Keep scrolling to learn how to use fermented foods to beat belly bloat.
Why Fermented Foods?
The essential thing to know about fermented foods is that they contain the power to fix what processed foods have ruined in our digestive systems. “We’re literally killing our gut flora, one potato chip at a time!” Krebs says. Here’s what went wrong: “As a society, we have increased the use of broad-spectrum antibiotics and also consume a diet of highly processed foods: This combination has [diminished the] ecosystem of bacteria in the microbiome of our digestive organs,” explains Rebecca Lewis, a registered dietitian at HelloFresh.
Consequently, digestive issues are widespread in the United States, but in recent years, scientific research has highlighted the importance of gut health for making things better. Thus, probiotic-rich fermented foods “have been enthusiastically called the new cure-all,” Lewis says.
What makes probiotics so wonderful for gut health and digestion is the fact that they are live bacteria. “In other words, they don’t just sit in our stomach after consumption, but rather [they] go to work, helping to balance gut bacteria and stomach acids, releasing enzymes,” Krebs says. These enzymes encourage digestion, making it easier for our bodies to eliminate toxins and extract and absorb nutrients. Probiotics also help stave off infection, reduce bloating and inflammation, and influence the hormones our brains release, which affects our mood.
The only tricky part with fermented foods is knowing what they are (and how to eat them). That’s where the following grocery list comes in.
What to Eat (And How)
1. Yogurt and Kefir
Not familiar with kefir? Krebs describes it as “a fermented milk product (cow, goat, or sheep milk), much like a drinkable yogurt.” Both kefir and certain varieties of yogurt are rich in calcium and magnesium, as well as enzymes and probiotics. “When consumed regularly, these products can heal and target gut issues, such as irritable bowel disease, candida, and poor digestion,” Krebs says.
We’re not talking about that sugary fruit-at-the-bottom yogurt, though. “Of the options available, look for products derived from grass-fed cows and lower in sugar, such as Icelandic yogurt, Greek-style yogurt, and organic kefir,” Krebs says.
For a delicious and easy fermented breakfast, check out this kefir parfait recipe (which contains the added digestive benefits of cinnamon).
Nope, kombucha isn't just a trendy drink for health nuts. It's made of fermented black tea and sugar (usually cane sugar or honey). "Following fermentation, kombucha becomes carbonated and provides a rich colony of bacteria, along with B vitamins, enzymes, and probiotics," says Krebs. "Along with improving digestion, fans of kombucha report it also increases energy, detoxes the body, and promotes better immunity." To reap the benefits, try working 16 ounces into your diet a few days a week. There are dozens of brands available, but make sure to look for one made in a smaller batch with organic ingredients. Krebs recommends the brand Health-Ade, which you can find a Whole Foods and other grocery stores using their store locator.
“Kimchi is a Korean dish that’s made from a combination of vegetables, including cabbage, with spices and seasoning,” Krebs says. “Due to its high level of antioxidants and probiotics, kimchi is regarded as a gut-friendly, cancer-fighting food.” Better yet, eating vegetables in a fermented state “allows us to access to them [when] their high nutrient density is preserved,” Lewis says.
Our favorite way to eat kimchi is in a stir-fry or ramen bowl. (Check out this easy kimchi ramen recipe).
4. Probiotic Supplements
According to Krebs, “fermented protein powders and bars are relatively new to the fermented landscape. However, expect to see more cropping up.” The benefit to these plant-based supplements is that they provide both probiotics and protein without aggravating lactose intolerances or whey sensitivities. “By the process of fermentation, protein powders and bars are easier to digest, requiring the body to do less work to absorb nutrients,” Krebs says. Just make sure to look for products that are low in sugar, gluten, and fillers, like the one above.
Tempeh might not look so pretty when raw, but it is very a versatile food made from fermented soybeans. Tempeh can be transformed into a number of different dishes, including delicious stir-fry meals and a convincing vegan bacon. Despite the controversies surrounding soy, most nutritionists agree that when eaten in moderation, it can absolutely be a part of a healthy diet.
Don’t get too excited: We’re not recommending that you down a bottle of rosé every night. But there is room for alcohol in the life of someone with great digestion. How? “In some cases, the fermentation process actually creates additional nutrients,” Lewis says. “In the case of alcoholic beverages, B vitamin synthesis is part of the fermentation process.” That means four ounces of wine a couple of times per week provides a “microdose of essential B vitamins,” in addition to the benefits of probiotics.
Next up, don’t miss six easy things you can do to detox your body in 24 hours.