What Are Prebiotics — and the Best Ways to Eat Them

Dina Cheney
by Dina Cheney
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What Are Prebiotics — and the Best Ways to Eat Them

Prebiotics have recently joined probiotics to become darlings of the nutrition world.

Simply put, probiotics are beneficial bacteria in our gastrointestinal tract. Prebiotics are indigestible carbohydrates that serve as “food” for those healthy bugs. Want more help digesting the difference (pun intended!) between the two? Keep reading. 

Probiotics help break down food, allowing us to better absorb nutrients from what we eat. Ultimately, probiotics promote increased energy and heart and skin health, and they reduce the risk of chronic disease, says Ashley Koff, RD, founder of Ashley Koff Approved. Probiotics are found in foods and drinks like yogurt, kefir, kombucha and kimchi, and they’re available in supplement form.

FOOD FOR THOUGHT

To stimulate growth of probiotics, we can consume prebiotics. They pass through the small intestine into the colon (large intestine), where they are digested by probiotics.

“Prebiotics have been shown to inhibit the growth of harmful bacteria, stimulate the immune system, aid in the digestion of food and absorption of beneficial components, synthesize certain vitamins, and provide fuel for the growth of cells lining the colon,” says Guy Crosby, PhD, the science editor for America’s Test Kitchen and an adjunct associate professor at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.  

“Foods that function as prebiotics are nondigestible carbohydrates, such as resistant starch, pectins, gums, non-digestible sugars and small polymers of various sugars called oligosaccharides [one example is inulin],” says Crosby. “Also included are the beta-glucans found in oat bran.”

GOOD BUGS FOR A HEALTHIER GUT

To boost our gut health, we should include both probiotics and prebiotics in our diets. Karen Ansel, MS, RDN, and author of “Healing Superfoods for Anti-Aging: Stay Younger, Live Longer,” recommends a food-first strategy. “Foods that are good sources of prebiotics are rich in lots of other important nutrients, too,” she explains.

Crosby agrees that food is the best source of prebiotics — meaning you don’t have to buy pricey supplements. “The multitude of beneficial bacteria living in our large intestine feed on many different forms of prebiotics,” he says. “A supplement is likely to contain only one form. It would be like humans eating the same food every day.”

Michael Smith, MD, the medical director and chief medical editor at WebMD, recommends eating a wide variety of fruits and vegetables, including those in the garlic and onion family, to keep your diet rich in prebiotics. “Prebiotics are good for everyone, no matter the type of diet you are on,” he says. “And since most of us do not get enough fiber to begin with (most of us only get about half the fiber we need in a day), any opportunity to pack our diets with fiber should not be missed.”

A word of warning: Since prebiotics are not digested, you’ll want to start slowly to avoid the unsavory side effects that can come when you overdo it on them.

“You definitely want to give your digestive system a chance to adjust to prebiotics,” cautions Ansel. “If you’re not in the habit of eating lots of prebiotic foods, add them to your diet a little at a time to minimize gas and bloating.”

WHERE TO FIND PREBIOTICS

Look for prebiotics in jicama, unripe bananas, apples, legumes, whole wheat, oats, barley, cocoa and flax seeds, as well as certain starchy foods that have been cooked and cooled, such as potatoes.

Even if you’re on a low-carb diet, you can also glean prebiotics from asparagus, Jerusalem artichokes (sunchokes) and artichokes, dandelion greens, chicory, garlic, onions and leeks. One of Smith’s favorite sources is seaweed, since it’s “a very potent prebiotic (and great in a seaweed salad).”

Now, that’s a good reason to go with your gut!

About the Author

Dina Cheney
Dina Cheney

Dina is the author of six books, including The New Milks, as well as a writer and recipe creator for numerous publications and brands. For more healthy living inspiration, visit her dairy-free site, The New Milks, and connect with her on TwitterInstagram and Facebook.

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