While your weekly shopping list may not read quite like the contents of Gwyneth Paltrow's larder, probiotic foods are something that should be firmly on your wellness radar.
Why, you ask? It's that same old zeitgeisty answer that most health-related questions get right now: your gut health.
Your forgiven for putting Jen An-worthy abs higher up your priority list than the bunch of organs itself, but think about it: focusing on your nutrition without paying attention to the system responsible for processing it all is a bit like buying a new home and being too focused on which shade of greige you want to paint your living room to check if the plumbing's legit. That is, at best: unwise, and at worst: a big fat waste.
Dr Michael Mosley, the TV scientist (whose BBC Horizon documentary on intermittent fasting made the 5:2 diet a household name), was so inspired that he wrote a book about it: The Clever Guts Diet (Short Books).
His message is: looking after your gut doesn't have to involve pricey probiotic supplements, but you can keep it healthy, repair damage and help it thrive with what we eat... Top of the list? You guessed it: good old-fashioned probiotic foods.
These live microorganisms help to maintain or improve the 'good' bacteria aka normal microflora in the body, which has a range of benefits to your digestion, immune system, vitamins and overall health. Not to be mistaken for prebiotics, though easily done, which feed the good bacteria.
But what exactly are they? WH spoke to Dr Mosley to get the essential facts on this important yet underrated part of our body and garnered his expert advice on how to best support it.
First up, let's talk about what probiotics actually do for your body...
The benefits of probiotic foods
1. Help fight gut problems
According to NHS figures, twice as many women as men are diagnosed with IBS and young women, especially those already experiencing severe period pain or endometriosis, are most at risk.
Another reason women who live the WH lifestyle might need to take probiotic foods to help look after their gut? Training hard takes a toll.
'Strenuous exercise cuts off the blood supply from the gut to the rest of your system, so some of the bugs can escape from your gut and get into your bloodstream,' explains Dr Mosely. 'This is what we call “leaky gut” syndrome and women who exercise strenuously are more vulnerable to it.'
2. Promote weight loss
'Researchers have shown that certain types of bacteria are associated with slimness,' says Dr Mosley. 'Even the act of transferring faeces from an overweight to a slim rodent will cause it to gain a lot more weight eating the same number of calories.' Bit grim, sure. But it's compelling evidence that the trillions of bacteria in your gut have a pivotal role to play in terms of your body composition.
As well as determining how many calories you store as fat and how many you, er, dispose of, your gut bacteria can also influence your appetite.
'The gut-brain axis is strong,' Dr Mosley explained, 'and we know that some gut bacteria are good at producing hunger hormones and hacking into your brain to encourage you to eat the sort of foods that make the bad bacteria thrive.'
The upshot? By influencing what your body craves, gut bacteria can affect your weight.
3. Improves your range of gut bacteria
Probiotic foods add in new, helpful bacteria to diversify the colonies already existing in your gut.
'Improving the range of bacteria in the gut is important – and probiotic foods are an effective way of doing that,' says Dr Mosley.
But if your mind is drawn to those mini yoghurt drinks that boomed in the early noughties – Mosley isn't convinced. He says there is no evidence that they work – and that the high amounts of sugar or artificial sweetener could be unhelpful in cultivating the healthy balance of gut bacteria you need to thrive. Read on for more natural probiotic foods...
4. But only if there's actually live bacteria in the foods
Fermented foods (like sauerkraut, kimchi, kombucha and kefir) can contain tens of billions of good bacteria per gram. But Dr Mosley says we have to be discerning when choosing them: 'In order to benefit your gut, probiotic foods need to have live bacteria in them.'
He advises saving money by making jars of DIY 'kraut – or, if you are going to buy your fermented probiotic foods, then make sure they are not pasteurised as this can kill the bacteria.
5 top probiotic foods to add into your diet
Yoghurt is one of the most common natural sources of probiotics and is often used to aid digestion.
Just make sure you choose a yoghurt that say ‘live and active cultures’ on the label, and watch out for high sugar and sweetener contents.
Dr Mosley advises going full-fat: 'Research suggests people who eat full-fat dairy tend to be at a lower weight. Not only is it more satiating, but it's likely because lots of the beneficial nutrients in yoghurt are fat-soluble. So if you skim the fat, you get rid of them too.'
A cross between yoghurt and milk, kefir is a delicious way to increase your probiotic and vitamin intake. Made by fermenting milk with bacteria and yeast, with a slightly tangy and creamy taste, the yoghurt drink can be blended with fruit to make a smoothie or topped with granola for a healthy and super-quick breakfast.
On BBC's Trust Me I'm a Doctor, Dr Mosley demonstrated that kefir is effective at improving gut bacteria whereas 'probiotic drinks' were not.
3. Miso soup
Popular in Japanese cuisine, miso is made by fermenting soybeans, barley or rice, then mixing them with salt and fungus to create a paste, which can be used to make miso soup, a tasty dish that’s low in calories and high in probiotics.
4. Soft cheeses
Not all cheeses are created equal, but certain soft and aged cheeses — like Cheddar, Cottage, Parmesan and Gouda — contain probiotics that can survive the journey through your gastrointestinal tract.
5. Fermented cabbage
Both sauerkraut, a German staple, and the popular Korean dish kimchi are made with fermented cabbage – a great source of probiotics. Just make sure that you eat it fresh (or make it yourself!) because most varieties in jars will have been heat-treated, which will destroy the probiotics.
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