05 Mar 9 Prebiotic Foods to Support Your Digestive Health
What do dandelion greens, Jerusalem artichokes, and lentils have in common? They’re all prebiotic foods. Prebiotics are capable of boosting the levels of good bacteria in your digestive tract and therefore improving your overall health and well-being. Sounds pretty great, doesn’t it?
Food has remarkable power. The simple act of adding more prebiotic foods to your diet can help strengthen your immune system, reduce bloating, improve your bowel movements and digestive health, reduce systemic inflammation, and more. You can also reap these potential health benefits by taking a high-quality prebiotic supplement.
To help you learn how to naturally improve your gut health, let’s take a closer look at the role of prebiotics in your body and nine foods that are loaded with these beneficial compounds.
What Are Prebiotics? Why Are They Important?
Prebiotics are a type of indigestible fiber found in food. They promote the development of healthy gut bacteria (aka probiotics) both on their own as well as by serving as a food source for probiotics (1).
The benefits of prebiotics include their ability to (1).:
- Strengthen the immune system
- Lower inflammation in the body, especially in the GI tract
- Improve digestion and alleviate constipation
- Improve the symptoms associated with irritable bowel syndrome (IBS)
- Promote healthy bone structure by increasing the absorption of calcium
- Promote a healthy gut microbiome by increasing the number of good bacteria
- Help reduce bloating
- Help prevent the development of allergies
- Strengthen the lining of the gut
As you can see, the health benefits of prebiotic fiber are vast. Increasing your intake of prebiotic foods can have far-reaching effects on your gastrointestinal health as well as your overall well-being.
How Do Prebiotics Differ From Probiotics?
Prebiotics and probiotics are complementary to one another, but they are not the same. While they both can reduce the number of harmful gut bacteria, prebiotics do so by serving as a food source for probiotics (“good bacteria”).
The source of prebiotics and probiotics also differs. Since prebiotics are a type of fiber, it may come as no surprise that they’re in high-fiber foods, including fruits, veggies, and whole grains. Probiotics, on the other hand, are predominantly found in fermented foods like yogurt, kefir, kimchi, sauerkraut, and pickles.
While probiotics seem to get most of the attention when it comes to gut health, it’s a good idea to consume both probiotics and prebiotics since they work symbiotically.
9 Prebiotic Foods That Are Good For Your Gut
Prebiotics are a type of fiber, so most prebiotic foods also have high fiber content. To help optimize your gut flora, consider adding the following prebiotic-rich foods to your diet.
Leeks are particularly high in a prebiotic fiber known as inulin — 100 grams of leeks can contain up to 17.4 grams of inulin (2). Since your body can’t digest inulin, your gut bacteria breaks it down into short-chain fatty acids. This process is the source of inulin’s health benefits, which range from reducing blood sugar and cholesterol levels to lowering body weight (3).
2. Jerusalem Artichokes
Jerusalem artichokes, sometimes referred to as sunchokes, are also high in inulin. There are up to 20 grams of inulin in every 100 grams of Jerusalem artichoke, making it an excellent source of this prebiotic (4). Studies have shown that inulin increases the number of beneficial bacteria in the gut, particularly the bifidobacteria species, which is common in probiotic supplements (5).
You can add more Jerusalem artichokes to your diet by enjoying them raw or cooked. If you choose to cook them, do so just as you would a potato. You can even eat the skin. Try them cubed and roasted on top of your next salad.
3. Chicory Root
Chicory root is even higher in inulin than Jerusalem artichoke, with up to 48 grams of inulin in every 100 grams (4). Studies show that consuming high amounts of inulin — 21 grams per day — may help with weight loss, in part by helping people feel less hungry and more satiated or full (6).
4. Dandelion Greens
The health benefits associated with dandelion greens also come from inulin. These greens contain anywhere from 13-28 grams of inulin per 100 grams (7). Due to this high inulin content, dandelion greens can also help with weight loss, blood sugar control, lowering cholesterol, and increasing concentrations of friendly gut bacteria.
What’s more, studies show that dandelion root extract has anti-inflammatory, anti-depressant, and anticancer properties (8). Try incorporating these greens into your diet by adding them fresh to your salad, or drying them and sipping on dandelion green tea.
Lentils are an excellent source of prebiotics, with 12-14 grams of prebiotics in every 100 grams of lentils (9). Studies show lentils help keep the gut microbiome populated with healthy bacteria species and can even help “prevent gut-associated diseases,” including gut tumors (9).
Beyond prebiotics, lentils also contain polyphenols. These antioxidant compounds protect against a variety of diseases, including diabetes, obesity, cardiovascular disease, and cancer (9).
Apples are a great prebiotic food that’s high in fiber. A single apple (about 100 grams) contains roughly 4 grams of fiber or 17% of the daily recommended amount (10).
Much of this fiber is pectin, which has a wide range of health benefits. Studies show pectin can lower fat and cholesterol levels, blood sugar, and insulin. It can also promote bowel movements and provides some anti-cancer effects (11).
Like lentils, apples also contain polyphenols, helping to protect against diseases such as diabetes, obesity, cardiovascular disease, and cancer.
7. Jicama Root
Jicama root, also known as Bengkoang, boasts a good amount of prebiotic fiber inulin — 100 grams of jicama root contains almost 5 grams of fiber (12). It exerts the same health benefits as the other prebiotic foods high in inulin, most notably improved insulin sensitivity and lowered blood sugar levels (13).
This root is also high in vitamin C. One cup of jicama root contains 26.3 milligrams of vitamin C, which is 35% of the recommended daily intake for women, according to the Office of Dietary Supplements (14, 15). Vitamin C supports a healthy immune system, and, as an antioxidant, it protects the body from free radicals. As such, it “might help prevent or delay the development of certain cancers, cardiovascular disease, and other diseases in which oxidative stress plays a causal role” (15).
Like Jerusalem artichokes, you can prepare jicama root as if it were a potato, but eating the skin is not recommended. Peel the root veggie, chop it into sticks (like fries), and enjoy raw or cooked. For a delicious snack, you can roast the jicama root sticks, then dip them in chipotle mayonnaise dip.
8. Yacon Root
Yacon is a root vegetable that’s similar to sweet potato in appearance, though it tastes more like an apple. Yacon contains two main prebiotics: fructooligosaccharides and inulin. Studies show that these prebiotics can improve the gut microbiome and increase good bacteria, including Lactobacillus and Bifidobacterium (16).
Furthermore, the prebiotics in yacon root can help improve calcium and magnesium absorption and increase bone density (16). Studies also indicate that yacon root can lower cholesterol, inflammation, and blood fat. It can also act as an antioxidant, and potentially an antimicrobial, meaning it can kill or impede the growth of harmful microorganisms (16).
Try adding roasted yacon to your next salad, or making a delicious yacon root soup. If you can’t find fresh yacon at your local grocery store or farmers market, you might be able to find a yacon root extract supplement at your local health food store. (Just be careful that there are no artificial ingredients or unnecessary fillers.)
9. Whole Grains Like Bran, Barley, and Flaxseed
The dietary fiber content of whole grains such as bran, barley, and flaxseed is quite high, making them an excellent prebiotic food. (They also contain other healthy components, including protein, vitamins, and minerals.)
Six different scientific studies found that when volunteers consumed wheat bran or fiber, there were “significant effects on their gut microbiota.” Healthy bacteria species significantly increased, including Bifidobacteria and Lactobacillus (17).
Barley shows similar benefits with respect to populating the gut microbiome with friendly bacteria. Studies also find that barley can moderate blood cholesterol and blood sugar levels (17).
Consuming flaxseed helps promote bowel movements and may protect against cardiovascular disease, cancer, and diabetes (18). Like bran and barley, eating flaxseed can also help you to populate your gut with healthy bacteria. Try adding ground or whole flaxseed to your next smoothie.
Getting Started With Prebiotic Foods
Prebiotic foods have an incredible range of health benefits, from improving your digestive health and strengthening your immune system to reducing systemic inflammation, and more.
Unlike probiotics, which are often called the “good bacteria” that populate your digestive tract, prebiotics are simply a form of indigestible fiber found in food. While they complement probiotics, the two are not identical. Prebiotics serve as food for probiotics, which is partly how they help optimize your gut microbiome.
To support your digestion and general health, incorporate more prebiotic foods into your diet. Leeks, Jerusalem artichokes, chicory root, dandelion greens, lentils, apples, jicama root, yacon root, and whole grains are nine sources of prebiotics you can start consuming today.
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