8 Fermented Foods for Gut Health (and a Strong Stomach)
By Finer Things Contributors
Pity the poor gut. It just doesn’t get the credit it deserves. Yes, a courageous woman has guts. That gnawing sense of dread or certainty? We call it a “gut” feeling. But do we ever say, good job, gastrointestinal tract?
At a cellular level, we are about half-human, half bacteria. Much of that bacteria huddles in one place: our gut.
Our humble gut plays a crucial role in our overall wellness and one class of foodstuff can dramatically impact all these critical microbes in a positive way: fermented foods for gut health.
How Fermented Foods Improve Your Gut
Our digestive tract contains a large part of our microbiome, a complex and ever-changing population of millions of microbes. These microscopic, single-celled organisms can be good or bad. Beneficial bacteria, known as probiotics, can keep harmful bacteria, viruses, yeast, and other bad actors at bay.
When your gut contains far more bad bacteria than good ones, it’s known as dysbiosis. Like bad party guests, once pathogens outnumber the good guests, there’s nothing but trouble.
Fermented foods help create a protective lining of good bacteria to boost your immune system by warding off attacks from potential pathogens. Probiotic-rich foods can cut bloating, constipation and is thought to reduce the likelihood of gastrointestinal issues and even bowel disease.
But health care pros believe the potential health benefits go well beyond just your gut. New research suggests benefits to the cardiovascular system, including regulating blood pressure and improving heart health, and even improve your brain function.
There’s also evidence that a healthy gut can be a boon for weight loss and lowered cholesterol. A healthy gut can cut cravings, lessening obesity.
What is fermented food, anyway?
Fermentation is an ancient form of food preservation that uses microorganisms such as yeast and bacteria to convert carbohydrates such as starch and sugar found in dairy products or veggies into alcohol or acids, including lactic acid. Alcohol and acid resist and ward off bad bacteria, and as a result, the fermentation process keeps foods safe and edible for long periods of time. It also lends foods distinct tangy, fizzy, and tart flavors and textures.
While preservation is the goal, it turns out that fermentation adds a wealth of extra benefits to the body, starting with improving digestive health and introducing antioxidants to the gut.
Common fermented foods for gut health
When it comes to feeding your gut bacteria, top bets include kefir, kombucha, sauerkraut, tempeh, miso, kimchi, and even sourdough bread. Here is a quick rundown.
Kefir is a creamy fermented milk drink. Similar to a thin yogurt, it’s made from cow, goat, or sheep’s milk infused with grains. Originating in what’s now modern-day Russia some 3,000 years ago, the word “kefir” means “feeling good.” Even a small serving provides a hearty boost of probiotics, calcium, magnesium, folate, along with vitamins B12 and K2. If you’ve never tried it, order Whole Foods house-brand through Amazon Groceries.
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Kombucha is a lightly effervescent drink made from green or black tea fermented with some type of sugar, often honey. The origins of kombucha are unclear, although some culinary historians believe it originated in the Manchurian region of China. An American entrepreneur, Dave Thomas Harvey, was the first to put it on grocery store shelves in the U.S. after a Buddhist monk gave his family some kombucha starter as a gift in the 1990s. We like GT’s brand, especially Gingerade.
We think of sauerkraut as a German dish, but the dish likely got its start in China. Meaning “sour cabbage,” it’s high in fiber, calcium, magnesium, iron, and vitamins A, B, C, and K. You can try your hand making it at home or buy it from a grocery store but opt for the varieties sold in the refrigerated section as they pack the best probiotic bang for your gut.
Miso has long been a fixture in Japanese cuisine. It begins by fermenting different types of soybeans, barley or brown rice with koji, a type of fungus. The result is a thick paste rich in amino acids and probiotics. Most Westerners know miso as the classic soup, but it has many culinary uses, including adding depth of savory richness to a wide variety of dishes. My favorite use of miso is as a marinade in this signature black cod from the legendary restaurant, Nobu.
Kimchi is a Korean cuisine staple made from fermented veggies, usually cabbage, sometimes assisted by radishes. Spices such as ginger, garlic, and pepper infuse the mix. Spicy, pungent kimchi packs a punch of probiotics in every bite. Look for refrigerated kimchi to assure you get live, healthful bacteria.
Like miso, tempeh is made by joining soybeans with a fermented starter that is basically a hive of live mold. After a few days of fermenting, tempeh develops a dense, somewhat grainy texture that can be transformed into a variety of shapes. Packed with protein and probiotics, tempeh makes a hearty meat alternative.
Yogurt is milk fermented with lactobacillus, a good bacteria. However, most grocery store yogurt gets pasteurized to extend its shelf life, removing much of the potential benefit to your gut microbiota. Seek out those labeled “probiotic yogurt,” as this means additional lactobacillus has been added in prior to final packaging. If you have trouble digesting lactose, look for yogurt made sheep or goat milk.
During the initial lockdowns for COVID-19, it seemed virtually everyone became an expert on sourdough bread when yeast became scarce. Unlike traditional bread making, sourdough gets its rise by fermenting flour with lactic acid bacteria.
How to Get Fermented Foods in Your Diet
To get the health benefits of fermented foods, find ways to incorporate them into your eating routine. Add some kefir or yogurt to a morning shake or green drink and keep some bottles of kombucha in the fridge to replace bottled water. Try some instant miso soup for an afternoon pick-me-up. Make a habit of serving a bit of sauerkraut as a side to simply grilled proteins or use the juice in dressings. Spice up go-to recipes with kimchi. Try out some tempeh recipes. For this effort, your body will thank you, right down to its microbes.
If you want to boost your brain function along with your gut, check out the MIND Diet for brain health.
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