Feed the probiotic cultures in your healthy human biome
Most of us are familiar with probiotics – the live bacteria which support immune system and digestive health. We eat yogurt with ‘active cultures’ and sometimes take probiotic supplements.
So what are Prebiotics? They are the foods which help beneficial probiotics grow in our digestive tracts. They are nutrients for the healthy microbes in the human biome.
Red wine, honey, and maple syrup are prebiotics. If my healthy gut bacteria like a good Malbec, I am happy to accommodate them.
Various high fiber foods are good prebiotics. Some may challenge your sense of culinary adventure and send you in search of recipes.
Here are the leading high fiber prebiotic foods:
Asparagus is a great prebiotic. Raw is better than cooked, but I compromise with slightly blanched stems.
Raw Jerusalem artichoke is related to the sunflower and is not an artichoke. It gets its name because it tastes vaguely like an artichoke heart. It looks a little like ginger root. It is also known as a sunchoke. It is possibly the last vegetable you get to in your CSA box.
You can chop Jerusalem artichokes into salads, sauté them or roast them into the consistency of a creamy potato. They have a low glycemic index. Here is a recipe for a raw sunchoke, fennel and apple salad to get you started.
Raw banana is a powerful prebiotic and it gives you potassium in the bargain.
Organic Oatmeal is a familiar and powerful prebiotic. $3.19 for a 1 LB bag at www.bobsredmill.com.
Raw chicory root can be taken as a supplement or in ground form. It is sometimes used as a coffee substitute although it does not contain caffeine. Spoiler alert: it can be quite bitter. Check out your local health food store.
Raw dandelion greens. Let’s not quibble, these healthy greens are bitter. My advice is to blanch them in boiling water for about 20 seconds to make them less acrid – and then hide them from your taste buds in a soup or a stew.
Raw garlic. You probably have a few recipes like guacamole which include raw garlic. It turns out that the old fashioned advice to eat raw garlic to boost your immune system and overcome illness is rooted in science. Just have the mouthwash standing by.
Raw leeks. A little raw leek goes a long way for me. It has a strong onion garlic flavor. Try chopping them fine and sprinkling them on pasta or salad much as you would use a scallion. I love cooked leeks, and while they have less probiotic power than the raw form, they are still beneficial.
Raw onions. Again, small doses for me, maybe sprinkled on a taco.
Cooked onions. Now we are talking. We can claim French Onion Soup and caramelized onions as health foods. They are admittedly less powerful prebiotics than their uncooked versions.
Organic Wheat bran. I choose to mix this with tastier grains, but I am happy to add some to my breakfast mix. $17 for 1.5 pounds
Raw or cooked prebiotic food? Cooking is a double edged sword. It makes food safer by killing bad bacteria, but also kills the good. If you are going to move to a more ‘raw food’ diet that’s probably great for your gut, however, you should be careful to get food you trust and clean it well.
Not for everyone – Prebiotics with their high fiber and success in supporting the growth of healthy bacteria are not for everybody. People with Irritable Bowel Syndrome and other digestive conditions may find they make the symptoms worse.
All at once? Most advice on changing one’s diet to include more pre/probiotics, suggests making a gradual, maintainable change. Our digestive tracts do not react well to radical transformation. The microbiome changes slowly. How slowly? Researchers are not really sure, but most studies agree that very short term interventions don’t have long term consequences. Practically this means that it’s better to add an extra 10 grams of pre/probiotic foods a day for 300 days than to have 300 extra grams 2/3 times a month. One way to think about this is to consider the effects of the pro/prebiotics on the bacteria. One hypothesis (unproven) is that when the microbes in our gut are starved, they don’t produce helpful byproducts and can actually begin to live on the nutrients we need. The goal with the pre/probiotics is to train the bacteria that there will be food present regularly so it will reset its metabolism and go back to producing all the good byproducts (short chain fatty acids for instance) that we need. The bacteria react the same way our body’s metabolism does when we starve and feed it!
ASE has written about the healthy human biome and a biotech start-up at the center of it.