The health benefits of probiotics are vast. Aside from bolstering our digestive health, research shows that these healthy strains of bacteria play a role in boosting our mood, mental health, and metabolism. Not to mention our immune system (so, despite what you may have previously thought "healthy bacteria" isn't an oxymoron).
As Paula Simpson explains, "Microflora is introduced at birth, and if our diets are balanced, continues to develop as we age. … Our digestive system contains hundreds of different species of bacteria, which can both be good and bad and have a positive or negative effect on your health. More than 70 percent of our important immune cells live in the gut and are dependent on healthy gut flora."
Meet the Expert
Paula Simpson is a holistic beauty nutritionist and biochemist. She is also the author of “Good Bacteria for Healthy Skin; Nurturing Your Skin Microbiome with Pre- and Probiotics for Clear and Luminous Skin."
Our skin can also majorly benefit from regular probiotic consumption. "Your skin harbors a variety of bacterial communities that play a central role in protection against harmful pathogens and skin immunity, known as the skin microbiome," Simpson says. In fact, regularly consuming probiotics has been shown to lessen acne and eczema.
Encouraging the good strains and averting the bad is as easy as consuming certain types of food—particularly food that naturally contains good bacteria—so that they're introduced to our gut upon digestion. These types of foods are called (yep, you guessed it) probiotic foods, and there are many options. Keep scrolling to see 11 probiotic foods experts recommend including in your healthy-gut diet.
Yogurt is probably the most widely known probiotic food. It contains live strains of bacteria that ease digestive issues and diversify the natural flora (which is exactly why certain brands of yogurt are marketed toward people who experience digestive issues). Try making a yogurt parfait with Greek yogurt, seeds and nuts, and fresh fruit. Before purchasing, be sure it's a "natural yogurt with no additives or sugar and added probiotics such as acidophilus and bifidobacteria," Simpson says.
Kefir is similar to yogurt, as it's also a cultured dairy product. The difference lies in the types of bacteria present, as well as slight variations in flavor and texture. Where yogurt is thick and creamy, kefir is usually a liquid consistency, so you can drink it as such. It's also more tart than yogurt, thanks to the fermentation process and the presence of yeast. "Kefir contains more bacterial strains than yogurt and remains viable in the digestive system," Simpson says.
For anyone who hears the word sauerkraut and cringes, know that it's a lot less scary than it sounds. All it is is finely cut cabbage that has been fermented. When it's added to certain dishes, it provides a nice texture and tart flavor.
Kimchi is a traditional Korean side dish made from fermented vegetables—think cabbages and radishes—that have been flavored with ginger, chili powder, or other spices, herbs, and garnishes. It's healthy, it tastes amazing, and it diversifies the good bacteria in your gut. By the way, if you're sensing a fermented food theme thus far, you're not wrong. The fermentation process requires live microorganisms (aka bacteria) for food to change. That's why so many of the same foods fall in both the fermented and probiotic categories.
Another pattern you might be noticing is the focus on traditional foods or those that have been eaten and prepared the same way in specific cultures throughout time. Yet again, you'd be correct. "Modern food technologies and processing in the Western diet have stripped away the good bacteria and enzymes that help build a healthy gut flora," Simpson explains. "A plant-based, unprocessed diet with lacto-fermented-type foods has become a growing area of interest to improve microbial diversity and promote a balanced gut microbiome." In this case, it's tempeh or the fermented soybean cakes that originated in Indonesia. It contains good-for-the-gut bacteria, which can bolster the existing flora and push out the bad bacteria.
6. Sourdough Bread
Finally, healthy news about bread. Sourdough is superior to other types of bread when it comes to gut health since it doesn't require fast-rising yeasts to form. Instead, it contains lactobacillus, which is a strain of good bacteria that encourages the bread to rise without any other added ingredients. This strain of bacteria is also naturally present in our intestinal tract. So, in this way, replacing other types of bread with sourdough will bolster the good bacteria in your gut. (You don't have to tell us to eat bread twice.)
Kombucha is everywhere nowadays. It's a fermented black or green tea that often has other natural flavorings (so aside from the probiotics inside, it also offers the health benefits of tea). Holly Roser, certified personal trainer and sports nutritionist based in San Fransisco, cautions against drinking kombucha too often or in too large of quantities since certain brands and blends contain added sugars. Sugar is not good for your gut health or your general health, so avoiding consuming too much of it is key.
Joshua Rosenthal, the founder of Integrative Nutrition, recommends including miso into your diet. Miso is a traditional Japanese food made from fermented soybeans with rice or barley and salt (miso soup, anyone?). While this is certainly a probiotic-rich option, he says variety is the most important, not necessarily the quantity. "Different foods have different compositions of bacterial strains and different amounts," he says. "Everyone is deficient in different types of good bacteria, so it is hard to say which is best. But the most important thing is diversity. You want as many different and varied good bacteria, and the way to achieve this is with different and varied good sources of probiotics."
9. Saltwater Brine Olives
Just as no one probiotic food is best, there's no need to eat probiotic-rich foods all day and at every meal. As long as you have a balanced diet, it's likely that you'll get the extra probiotics you need. "You do not need to eat probiotics at every meal to reap many of the benefits," Lisa Moskovitz, RD, CDN, and founder of the NY Nutrition Group says. "Including at least one to two servings of probiotic-rich foods, along with prebiotic-rich foods (onions, garlic, and bananas) that help probiotics flourish, should be enough." If you like olives as we do, she recommends snacking on saltwater brine variations for a probiotic boost.
10. Cottage Cheese
According to Roser, another dairy product that's rich in healthy bacteria is cottage cheese. It is rich in good bacteria and has several active cultures (similar to yogurt) that can diversify the gut's microbiome.
Moskovitz recommends pickles for a punch of probiotics. But there's a catch. It can't be just any kind of pickles—the way they are brined is the most important factor in ensuring high probiotic levels. You see, when pickles are made with vinegar brine, the growth of good bacteria is halted. Instead, you want to eat pickles submerged in saltwater brine (just like the aforementioned olives) because the saltwater won't inhibit any bacteria growth.
While it's possible to get all of our probiotic needs from our diet, supplements can help. Just be sure you're taking a probiotic and not a prebiotic. It's easy to mix up the two, but their function is very different. "Prebiotics are non-digestible food products that can fuel growth or activity of nonpathogenic bacteria in the colon," Simpson explains. "Probiotics are healthy bacteria that may help to detoxify byproducts, defend the lining of the intestine, increase the bioavailability of nutrients, and protect the tract against infectious microbes." Both are important, but it's just important to know the difference since your body could require supplementation by either one or the other.
If your skin is your main area of concern, Simpson recommends taking a mix of pro and prebiotics like those found in the ZSS Clear Skin Supplement. "These supplements contain a unique blend of pre and probiotics that detoxify and support both gut and skin microflora, keeping digestion healthy and skin clear," she says. Roser agrees that supplements can be helpful, although she recommends checking "with your health care professional first, especially if you are pregnant or have a health condition."