Your gut is home to roughly 70 percent of your immune system and trillions of bacteria, both helpful and not-so-much, which are kept in balance largely by a healthy, plant-rich diet. Collectively, that bacteria is called the microbiome, and when you feed it well—with lots of fiber, nutrient-dense foods, and little if any sugar—chances are, you’ll be well far more often than ill.
In addition to a healthy diet, a fundamental way to keep the microbiome on an even keel is by supporting it with probiotics. For the uninitiated, probiotics are “good” bacteria that your gut needs to maintain immune function and overall health. To get your daily dose, you can eat probiotics or take a supplement—or better yet, do both to cover your bases and fill in any nutritional gaps.
But Doc, do I really need a daily dose? The short answer is, for most people, yes. Research has indicated that the beneficial bacteria you take in—either through food or supplements—may not take up permanent residence in the gut, so regularly replenishing your supply is a good idea. (Though probiotics are generally well tolerated, check with your doc first to make sure there are no contraindications with any prescription medications you may be taking.)
So, where to find those precious, edible probiotics? Typically, they’re available in some dairy foods, but if you’re unable to tolerate dairy, or avoid it for ethical, dietary (e.g.., Paleo, vegan, etc.), or religious reasons, it’s still possible to get your probiotics by opting for equally effective, dairy-free—and very tasty—alternatives. Among my favorites:
Coconut milk yogurt
There’s a lot to like about coconut milk yogurt in addition to the dairy-free probiotic dose. It’s delicious and indulgently creamy, delivering a respectable amount of fiber plus a nice dollop of good fats in the form of medium-chain triglycerides (MCTs), with little if any added sugar in the unsweetened versions.
This spicy, fermented cabbage side dish from Korea has, in recent years, found its way into many health-conscious diets and with good reason. Adding a serving of kimchi to your plate not only boosts flavor but also delivers a probiotic punch, plus fiber and A, B, and C vitamins. Better yet, studies indicate that the good bacteria in kimchi may inhibit cancer development and improve immune function.
Natto and tempeh
The only type of soy you should ever ingest is the fermented kind, preferably organic and stamped with the Non-GMO Project seal. Fermented soy products like natto and tempeh add flavor and texture to meals and are also excellent sources of good bacteria. Unfermented soy and unfermented soy products, however, have a profoundly negative impact on health—and should be avoided at all costs.
Pickles—the fermented kind
Contrary to what you might think, most store-bought pickles are not fermented, so if it’s probiotic power you’re after, you have two options: 1) leave ’em on the shelf and ferment your own or 2) buy only pickles that specifically state on the label that they’re naturally fermented and contain live active cultures.
Add unpasteurized sauerkraut to meals as a tangy, crunchy side dish or to top salads and other dishes, but remember to eat it chilled or at room temperature. Baking sauerkraut in the oven or cooking it on the stovetop will kill off most of the bacterial good guys, negating much of sauerkraut’s probiotic powers.
Bonus tips and tricks
Looking to boost your probiotic intake and by extension keep your immunity and digestion in top form? Then here are a few more ways to help the process along:
Buy with care
It’s possible to buy fermented foods at most markets these days, but know that they likely won’t be as probiotic-rich as the ones you ferment yourself. That said, when it comes to store-bought, head for the refrigerated section and look for products made with organic, Non-GMO Project–certified raw veggies that have been naturally fermented, not pasteurized, as that process tends to kill off most of the good bacteria you’re after. Another tip? Keep in mind that fermented foods are not necessarily pickled, and pickled foods are not necessarily fermented, so read the labels carefully.
Take matters into your own hands
Ready to start fermenting? Just about any veggie or veggie combo will do, and the procedure is startlingly simple: Clean and chop your veggies; add salt water and spices to create a brine; completely submerge veggies and pack tightly into a sterilized mason jar; and wait for a few days. For step-by-step how-to instructions, check out this recipe for homemade Pink Sauerkraut.
It’s hard to beat the taste of your own homemade pickles, and they are ridiculously easy to make. And the DIY method gives you more probiotic bang for your buck, plus the freedom to experiment with interesting spices and seasonings for a fraction of the cost of store-bought versions. To make your own pickles, probably in less time than it takes to go to the store, try this simple recipe.
Learn from a master
To do a deeper dive into fermented foods, check out well-known fermentation expert Sandor Katz’s influential book on the subject, The Art of Fermentation.
Sources for this article include: