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Why you need to know the difference between probiotics and prebiotics

Quick take

While we often think of bacteria as a bad thing, your gut actually needs a balance of healthy bacteria to thrive. And a healthy gut leads to a healthy you -- reducing your risk for heart disease, hypertension, colon cancer, digestive issues, and more. 

One popular way to maintain gut health is to eat probiotics. But that’s just one piece of the gut health puzzle. If you're not eating prebiotics, probiotics aren't going to help you. Here's why.

On this page

What is your gut microbiome (and why it affects your overall health)?

What are probiotics?

6 plant-based sources of probiotics

What are prebiotics (and why probiotics don’t matter without them)?

16 plant based sources of prebiotics

Key Takeaways

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A gift for you: FREE Ultimate Little Guide to Plant-Based Eating

What is your gut microbiome (and why it affects your overall health)?

Did you know your gut has more than a thousand species of microorganisms and trillions of bacteria? All this bacteria in the gut is referred to as your gut microbiome. A healthy gut microbiome is an important piece of your overall health.

“Good bacteria” reduces inflammation in the gut; a balanced biome reduces your risk for serious illness, including heart disease, colon cancer, IBS and Crohn’s Disease, even depression (your gut is often referred to as you “second brain” after all). 

So how can you stay on top of your gut health? Probiotics and prebiotics are both important.

What are probiotics?

Probiotics are definitely trending in the United States -- from Kombucha on tap at natural food stores to an explosion of supplements available on the market. And it’s true; eating probiotic rich foods can help boost your gut health. But that’s just one piece of the puzzle. 

First, what are probiotics, exactly?

Probiotics are foods that contain live microorganisms (caused by fermentation) to promote the growth of bacteria, or normal microflora, in your gut. 

While greek yogurt is a popular probiotic-rich food, you can get your probiotics without the inflammatory effects of dairy.

6 plant-based sources of probiotics include:

  • Kimchi
  • Sauerkraut 
  • Tempeh
  • Tofu
  • Unfiltered and unpasteurized apple cider vinegar
  • Cultured dairy-free yogurt (look for no added sugar and live cultures)

What are prebiotics (and why probiotics don’t matter without prebiotics)?

While probiotics are absolutely beneficial for gut health, if you’re skimping on prebiotics, your gut health will suffer. 

Prebiotics are plant-based foods we eat that fuel the growth of the healthy bacteria in the gut. 

Prebiotics contain fiber we can’t fully digest so it ferments in the gut. This fiber goes into our digestive system to become food for the good bacteria. When we feed our “good bacteria” the fiber in prebiotics, the bacteria creates a short chain fatty acid called butyrate. 

Butyrate is crucial to keeping your gut in balance. 

Not all bacteria is good and our immune system has to distinguish between the “good” (referred to as microbiota symbiosis) and the “bad” bacteria (microbiota dysbiosis) so it can properly get rid of the bad, while keeping the good. 

Without butyrate, our bodies can’t tell the difference between “good” and “bad” bacteria, which means the immune system will attack even the good stuff.

This happens when people don’t have enough fiber in their diet. Our body confuses a low fiber diet with dysbiosis. So if we aren’t eating enough fiber (most Americans are not), the good bacteria from probiotics doesn’t matter because there is no butyrate to tell our body that our gut is balanced - so our immune system goes into attack mode and destroys the good bacteria. 

The good news is, it’s easy to get prebiotics from plant-based foods.

16 plant-based sources of prebiotics:

  • Leeks
  • Asparagus
  • Onion
  • Garlic
  • Chickpeas
  • Lentils
  • Red kidney beans
  • Bananas
  • Apples
  • Watermelon
  • Grapefruit
  • Oats
  • Barley
  • Almonds
  • Pistachios
  • Flaxseeds

Key Takeaways

  • Gut health is important for overall health as a balance microbiome reduces your risk of developing many serious illnesses, including heart disease, diabetes, even colon cancer.
  • A health gut is one in which good bacteria can thrive.
  • Probiotics are live beneficial bacteria that are created by fermentation. 
  • Plant-based sources of these probiotics include: kombucha, sauerkraut, kimchi miso, tempeh, tofu, unfiltered and unpasteurized apple cider vinegar. 
  • Prebiotics are plant-based foods we eat that fuel the growth of the healthy bacteria in the gut and helps bacteria to create butyrate.
  • Butyrate is essential for a healthy gut biome as it helps our immune system distinguish between “good” bacteria and “bad” bacteria.
  • Our body confuses a low fiber diet with dysbiosis and attacks all bacteria.
  • Plant-based sources of prebiotics include: leeks, asparagus, onions, garlic, chickpeas, lentils, red kidney beans, bananas, apples, watermelon, grapefruit, oats, barley, almonds, pistachios, flaxseeds

FREE DOWNLOAD: The Ultimate Little Guide to Plant-Based Eating

 

 

By Ali Brown

 

Ali is a nutrition and lifestyle writer and editor, with a Plant-Based Nutrition Certificate from the T. Colin Campbell Center for Nutrition Studies.

What you should do now

  1. We have been where you are and we’ve helped thousands of people (just like you) transition to eating a plant based diet. If you are looking for a guide that can help you with some of the big questions, and dramatically reduce your stress, this FREE Ultimate Little Guide to Plant-Based Eating is a great place to start.
  2. If you're interested in Weight Loss, Download this fantastic FREE guide Ultimate (little) Guide to weight loss
  3. If you’d like to learn about plant-based living go to our MamaSezz Blog where you can read hundreds of “How To” articles. If you’d like to learn about plant-based cooking go to our Recipes Section for easy step by step favorites.
  4. If you enjoyed this article, then so will your friends, so why not share it on LinkedIn, Twitter, Facebook and Email




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