There’s a lot more going on in your gut than just digestion, absorption and excretion. Trillions of microorganisms inhabit your intestines. In fact, there are 10 times more bacterial cells than human cells in your whole body. And these little beneficial bugs are busy! Scientists are beginning to unravel how friendly bacteria can protect your health and how the foods you eat can nourish them.
Fiber-rich plant foods give bacteria a fighting chance. Fiber feeds the healthy, hungry microbes, so that’s one of many reasons you should have lots of high-fiber plant foods, including grains, legumes, fruits and vegetables, on your plate.
Medications, hygiene, age, health status, and diet can influence your microbe balance. Eating wisely is likely your best strategy for boosting the beneficial bugs. We see hints of the effects of food on intestinal bacteria when we examine diets around the globe.
In populations that consume a largely plant-based, fiber-rich diet, such as those in Africa and Asia, the predominant microbes are the beneficial ones, such as bifidobacteria and lactic acid bacteria, commonly known as probiotic bacteria. These crowd out the bad guys.
Fermented foods provide healthy bacteria. Eating fermented foods which contain live cultures can add healthy microbes to your intestines, explains Jeannie Gazzaniga-Moloo, Ph.D, R.D., spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. Some of the foods you eat directly increase the quantity of healthy bacteria in your gut.
Many cultures throughout the world eat fermented foods. For example, sauerkraut is fermented cabbage common in German cuisine, and kimchi is a spicy version of fermented cabbage eaten in Korea. Fermented corn and millet are common in parts of Africa, and the Japanese use miso, a thick paste made from fermented soybeans. The most common fermented food in the U.S. is yogurt.
Read labels carefully when adding fermented foods to your diet, cautions Gazzaniga-Moloo. Some, but not all, contain live cultures.
“For example, sourdough bread is baked and fermented and meats are often smoked or cooked, rendering the once live cultures in the food product inactive. Filtering fermented beverages such as wine or beer effectively removes live cultures,” she explains.
When buying fermented foods, look for the word “live” such as “live cultured” pickles, sauerkraut or yogurt. If you’re unsure, call the manufacturer to ask if the product has live cultures or if the food was processed in a way that kills or removes any beneficial bacteria.” Heating or washing with chlorine will kill the good microbes, she adds.
– Jill Weisenberger, M.S., R.D., C.D.E., Environmental Nutrition
Reprinted with permission from Environmental Nutrition, a monthly publication of Belvoir Media Group, LLC. 800-829-5384.www.EnvironmentalNutrition.com. (c) 2012 BELVOIR MEDIA GROUP DISTRIBUTED BY TRIBUNE MEDIA SERVICES, INC.