Eating fermented food is trendy right now. But is it actually worth the hype? Yes and YES! Fermented foods are more than just a passing fad; they're loaded with surprising health benefits that help to keep your body balanced. What are fermented foods and which ones do you need to add to your plant-based diet ASAP? We've got you covered below.
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When we think of the gut, we think of digestion. We chew, swallow, digest, and dispose fairly frequently. But our guts do so much more than just process sustenance.
Your gut is so complex it's often referred to as the “second brain." That's why gut health is so important. To function effectively, your gut needs a ton of good bacteria. The good bacteria, known as microbiota symbiosis, are found primarily in plant foods; while "bad" bacteria known as microbiota dysbiosis, the type that can cause intestinal disorders, are most commonly associated with the consumption of animal products.
Good bacteria (found in fermented foods) not only help to aid digestion and fight off bad bacteria, but they affect your entire body from your heart to your brain.
Your gut's ultimate goal? To maintain equilibrium, which is a healthy balance of good bacteria.
The more fiber, antioxidants, and probiotics you eat, the easier it is for your body to function, thrive, and fight off disease.
The process of fermentation is a chemical breakdown by microorganisms like bacteria and yeast, preserving the food product. In fact, preservation was its original purpose, but it is used to this day and is associated with a surprising number of additional health benefits.
Pickles are a famous fermented food, especially here in America. But they're not everyone's cup of tea! Not into the vinegary-bite of pickles? No worries. Here are some of our favorite fermented plant-based foods, aside from pickles (which by the way, we do love!):
Sauerkraut is made from finely shredded raw cabbage that's been fermented in its own juices. It's usually made with green cabbage. Made famous by Eastern European cultures (sauerkraut means "sour cabbage" in German), it actually originated in China over 2000 years ago!
This spicy fermented cabbage is a Korean dish very similar to Sauerkraut in that it's another fermented cabbage dish. Kimchi, however, is usually made from Napa cabbage and is usually spicy!
Paste made from fermented soybeans, miso is a staple in Japanese cultures and is definitely on the uptick here in the United States. If you've ever gone out for sushi, you've probably enjoyed some miso soup. Salty, earthy, tangy, and savory, the perfect way to add umami to your favorite dishes.
Tempeh is made by fermenting cooked soybeans and then forming the mixture into a firm, dense cake. Like tofu, tempeh can be a great meat alternative, especially if you're new to a plant-based diet.
Apple cider vinegar is made from fermented apples and water. When purchasing apple cider vinegar for your gut health, look for brands that come with "The Mother," AKA all the good bacteria for your gut!
I know... we've been over this. But gut health is so important it's worth harping on. Fermented foods can help restore good gut bacteria, which is especially important if you eat the Standard American Diet, or a low fiber diet, or if you are taking an antibiotic (2). Once your gut is healed, you may start to notice improvements to the rest of your body too, like clearer skin, a happier mental state, and even heightened immunity.
Gut bacteria helps to keep your BMI lower. Individuals with higher bacterial richness are associated with a healthier overall weight, while those with low levels of good bacteria are more susceptible to obesity and are more likely to gain weight over time (3).
So what can you do to maintain a healthy weight? Eat more plant foods to help you reach that ideal bacteria equilibrium. Already overweight? Changing your lifestyle to incorporate more plants in your diet can even reverse obesity and help you regain critical gut bacteria while promoting overall health.
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Food can mend broken heart, literally. Research shows the more good bacteria living in your gut, the less likely you are to have a cardiac event.
Our gut flora converts choline found in animal products, especially eggs, into trimethylamine which is later turned into TMOA in the liver. TMAO is a toxic compound that leads to stroke, heart disease, kidney failure, atherosclerosis and early mortality (4). People with higher TMAO levels in their bloodstream have more than twice the risk for cardiovascular complications and failures.
Those who eat a primarily plant based diet do not have spikes in TMAO, even if they were to consume an animal product here and there, while those who eat a more standard American diet have spikes in TMAO when they consume foods with choline. This is due to the different flora found in the guts of vegetarians versus meat eaters. Vegetarians are unable to synthesize the compounds into TMAO in the liver, resulting in an absence of the toxic chemical altogether.
Ever feel a little down after binging on junk food? Turns out this reaction is not just psychological, but chemical and biological, too! Your mental health is directly affected by your gut health, which can over time be controlled by what you eat.
Our guts and brains are connected by neurotransmitters that transmit chemicals between nerve cells during a process called synapses (5). These endogenous chemicals like dopamine and serotonin help control our emotions. Our gut actually produces a large amount of these neurotransmitters, like serotonin, or the “feel good” chemical.
High fiber plant foods increase your neuroplasticity, making that transmission during synapse more effective. That is why a healthy gut full of good bacteria can help with mental illness conditions like anxiety and depression. Load up on probiotic fermented food for your mental health!
Turns out, a robust gut microbiome can actually help to build up your immune system! These good bacteria help harmful pathogens from entering your body through your gut. Probiotics found in fermented foods can actually help your body track down invasive organisms, and help prevent the spread of bacteria and viruses by lowering your mucus production (6).
Fermented foods have a tangy, tart, sharp, smooth acidic flavor (although they are alkaline!). They pack a large punch, so if you’re a fan of intense flavor then these probiotic packed fermented veggies are for you!
Layer pickles, tempeh, and sauerkraut into your sandwich or grain bowl. Mix diced pickles, dilly beans, kimchi and sauerkraut into your salad, pasta salad or potato salad. Use miso, apple cider vinegar, and pickle juice in your salad dressings. Use as a garnish for soups, stews, breakfast, lunch or dinner! To summarize: if it’s savory, it could use a spoonful of sauerkraut.
Caroline is a plant-based chef, recipe designer, and whole food plant-based nutrition educator, with a Plant-Based Nutrition Certificate from the T. Colin Campbell Center for Nutrition Studies.