Prebiotics 101: Discover Why Prebiotic Fiber Is The Most Important Thing Missing From Your Diet
When it comes to gut health, prebiotics play an important role—but what exactly is prebiotic fiber, and how do you get it into your diet?
Many of us have heard of probiotics, the beneficial bacteria that live in our gastrointestinal tract. Probiotics have countless health benefits; they help our bodies with nutrient absorption, maintain digestive health, and even play a part in regulating our mood. It's no wonder so many health experts recommend consuming probiotic-rich foods like yogurt and kefir, and other fermented foods.
Related Reading: A Diet Rich in Kimchi and Sauerkraut Could Help Fight Coronavirus
Probiotics are important for overall health, but there's another component to a healthy gut that is equally important. It's called prebiotic fiber (also known as just "prebiotics"), and it might just be the most important type of dietary fiber you can eat.
What Is Prebiotic Fiber—and Why Have You Never Heard of It?
Prebiotic fiber is a type of indigestible fiber that can't be completely broken down in your stomach. Instead, these fibers are fermented by probiotic gut bacteria in your small intestine and colon where they provide food for those same bacteria. If you've never heard of prebiotic dietary fiber, you're not alone. Probiotics tend to get all the fame and glory but this process of probiotics eating prebiotics is incredibly important. Without prebiotic food for probiotics to eat, you don't receive their benefits.
Prebiotics and probiotics work together to support your health in almost countless ways. For one, when the bacteria ferment prebiotic fibers, it produces important byproducts, including the production of essential nutrients and short-chain fatty acids, which are incredibly important for colon health. Studies have even shown that low levels of short-chain fatty acids are linked to digestive disorders like irritable bowel syndrome and ulcerative colitis, and supplementation with foods that produce short-chain fatty acids (aka, prebiotics) can lead to a decrease in diabetes and heart disease. Consuming prebiotic fiber has also been associated with fewer gut infections, healthier cholesterol levels, and weight loss.
Clearly, probiotics aren't the only important factor in the gut microbiome, and it's about time we learned about prebiotic fiber-rich foods and how to make sure we're eating enough of them.
Which Foods Are Highest in Prebiotic Fiber?
We can eat all the kefir and kimchi we want, but without prebiotic fiber for these probiotics to ferment, they won't be able to thrive and do their job of supporting our health and digestion. And unfortunately, according to the Cleveland Clinic, most Americans aren't getting the 25 to 25 grams of fiber that's required for our gut bacteria to really thrive.
Luckily, prebiotic fiber is found in a bunch of healthy, delicious foods—and all we have to do is eat them. According to the Harvard TH Chan School of Public Health, the highest amounts of prebiotics are found in raw versions of the following foods:
- Jerusalem artichokes (naturally rich in inulin)
- Dandelion greens
As a general rule, most fruits, vegetables, beans, and whole grains are decent sources of prebiotic fiber. By consuming a diverse mix of these foods every day, there's a good chance you'll be providing your gut bacteria with everything they need.
Do You Need a Prebiotic Supplement?
Like with probiotics, many people assume they need to take a prebiotic supplement to make sure they're getting enough. But as gut microbiome expert Gail Cresci, Ph.D., R.D., told Cleveland Clinic, "You can buy prebiotic supplements, but you don't need them if you eat the foods that fortify the army of friendly bacteria in your intestines." Therefore, most of your prebiotic needs can be satisfied with a healthy diet of fresh fruits and veggies, especially if you throw in a few of the high-prebiotic foods mentioned above each week.
If you do decide to supplement, rest assured that prebiotics and probiotics are very safe. As Katherine Zeratsky, R.D., L.D. wrote for the Mayo Clinic, "…side effects are rare, and most healthy adults can safely add foods that contain prebiotics and probiotics to their diets."
Related Reading: Do You Need a Probiotic Supplement?
To make sure you're supporting the environment in your digestive tract the best way possible, it's also recommended you consume probiotics and prebiotics at the same time, either in food- or a combined supplement-form; that way, you're providing the good bacteria and the fiber they require to thrive, all at the same time.
To get started on adding prebiotics to your routine, try our Tangy Banana Smoothie recipe, which incorporates bananas and Greek yogurt; our Jerusalem Artichoke recipe with Crispy Prosciutto; or our Asparagus with Sweet Onions recipe.
Gretchen Lidicker is a writer, researcher, and author of the book CBD Oil Everyday Secrets: A Lifestyle Guide To Hemp-Derived Health & Wellness. She has a masters degree in physiology and complementary and alternative medicine from Georgetown University and is the former health editor at mindbodygreen. She's been featured in the New York Times, Marie Claire, Forbes, SELF, The Times, Huffington Post, and Travel + Leisure.
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