Most people think ‘prebiotics’ is a misspelling of ‘probiotics’ and dismiss them. Probiotics dominate our headlines with endless promotions of yogurt drinks, smoothies, and supplements and you would be forgiven for thinking that probiotics were the more important food for a healthy gut. But here’s the rub: the only reason why we hear more about probiotics is that they can be branded, marketed and sold. Prebiotics foods on the other hand, because they are consumed by eating certain common vegetables, are just not that marketable. Yet, it is prebiotics foods which are far more important for a healthy gut. In fact, you can have a healthy gut if you don’t consume any probiotics at all, but you cannot have a healthy gut if you don’t consume any prebiotic foods. And remember, it’s not just for adults – boosting children’s gut health is just as important. So take a step back, ignore the probiotic advertising, and check out our top 20 prebiotic foods.
What is the difference between Prebiotic vs Probiotic
The definition of Probiotics is given as “microbial food supplements that beneficially affect the host by improving its intestinal microbial balances” (1). Essentially, probiotics foods are foods or supplements that contain live bacteria. The most common probiotics are dairy-based products such as yogurt but there are many fermented foods, such as kafir, tempeh, sauerkraut that also contain live bacteria. Probiotics are consumed in the hope that the good bacteria in the food will colonize the gut or boost the existing colony of bacteria that is already there.
The definition of Prebiotic foods is given as “nondigestible food ingredients that beneficially affect the host by selectively stimulating the growth and/or activity of one or a limited number of bacterial species already resident in the colon, and thus attempt to improve host health“. (1)
Essentially, prebiotic foods are fibrous foods that are not broken down by the digestive system. Instead of being digested, they move through the digestive system becoming food or fuel for beneficial bacteria that live in the digestive tract. Although all prebiotics foods are fiber, not all fiber is prebiotic. For a food to be a prebiotic, it must satisfy the following conditions:
- Resistant to stomach acids and digestion in the upper intestines.
- Is fermented by gut bacteria;
- Selectively stimulates the growth of good bacteria associated health and well being. (2)
In a nutshell, the difference between prebiotic vs probiotic is that probiotics are foods that contain good bacteria and prebiotic are foods that contain the fiber that good bacteria like to eat.
What are the health benefits of Prebiotic foods?
For any living organism to thrive, it must have an abundant food source. This is why prebiotic foods are more important than probiotics. Unless your gut has a steady supply of prebiotic fibers to nourish the good bacteria, good bacteria cannot thrive and your gut bacteria will become unbalanced. You can drink as much bio yogurt as you like, but it won’t make a difference without prebiotic foods in your diet.
So if prebiotics foods are more important than probiotics, what are the benefits of prebiotic foods and why should you consider prebiotic foods as the cornerstone of your diet?
There is a vast amount of research linking the bacterial composition of the gut to a variety of both mental and physical diseases. The research indicates that the prevalence or lack of certain species can cause specific diseases that we would never have associated with the gut. If your diet does not contain the probiotics that a particular genus of bacteria likes, then this bacteria will be unsuccessful in colonizing the gut and will be replaced by something else.The replacement bacteria may well be a pathogen or a bacteria that is associated with a medical condition such as obesity or depression.
Each individual’s gut bacteria composition is unique and research into altering the composition of bacteria with prebiotic and probiotic foods is still in its infancy. So while we are not in a position where we can prescribe a particular probiotic food for a particular disease, it is certain that a balanced intake of probiotic foods provides substantial preventative health benefits.
The diseases associated with unhealthy gut bacteria have been covered extensively here, but in summary, unhealthy gut bacteria have been linked to the following ailments:
- Immune system (3)
- Infant Colic (4)
- Diabetes (5)
- Heart disease (6)
- Brain development (7)
- Obesity (8)
- Irritable bowel syndrome (9)
- Inflammatory bowel disease (10)
- Brain function and morphology(11)
- Schizophrenia (13)
- Parkinsons disease (14)
- Althzeimers (15)
- Metabolism (16)
- Arthritis (17),(18)
- Lupus (19), (20)
- Multiple Sclerosis (21),(22)
- Liver disease (23), (24)
Now that’s quite a list! Given all these important benefits, it makes sense to start incorporating prebiotics into your diet immediately. The good news is you are probably already consuming at least some prebiotic foods regularly.
Prebiotics can be found in a number of foods you probably already eat, but if you want to boost your intake of prebiotics, here is a list of the 20 best prebiotic foods.
2) Other Greens
Kale, chard, and spinach are all good prebiotic foods. Many vegetables are best consumed raw, and this is certainly the case with greens, which also contain vitamins A and C and potassium (26), although you can still benefit from steamed or sautéed greens. You can certainly cook your greens with garlic and onion for a prebiotic boost!
Dandelion greens are especially rich in prebiotic fibers and contain an important prebiotic fiber called inulin. Inulin promotes the production of healthy bacteria in the digestive system
(25). Add chopped dandelion greens to a salad, toss in a smoothie and blend, brew a soothing dandelion tea or sauté the greens with onions and garlic for a prebiotic superfood.
Bananas especially green or under-ripe bananas are a good source of prebiotics. Bananas contain inulin, which helps fight high cholesterol and triglycerides (28). If you don’t care for the taste or texture of under-ripe bananas, use green bananas in smoothies.
Studies indicate that barley is a helpful prebiotic food, especially in older adults. Barley supports overall “gut” health because it has “significant bifidogenic properties” (29). In short, this means that barley, like all prebiotics, promotes wellness by feeding or fueling “good” bacteria in the digestive tract.
Oatmeal has long been associated with managing LDL or “bad” cholesterol. But oatmeal is also a wonderful prebiotic food. While reducing “bad” microbes in the digestive system, oatmeal promotes the growth of “good” bacteria in the digestive system, studies suggest (30). It’s easy to build a probiotic superfood for breakfast by simply topping cooked steel cut oats with berries, honey and a bit of yogurt. It’s delicious and good for your digestive tract and overall health!
Honey, and particularly locally sourced, unpasteurized honey, has long been touted for its many health benefits. It turns out that honey is also a good prebiotic. Studies show significant, increase of “good” bacteria in the digestive tract of mice when they are given honey (31).
Garlic, both raw and cooked, is another important prebiotic food, one that you are probably already consuming. In addition to a number of other health benefits, garlic supports gut health by feeding good bacteria. Also, garlic works to inhibit the growth of some “disease-promoting bacteria” (32). Raw garlic is best and can be incorporated into dressings and on top of dips (33). For a double-dose of prebiotic goodness, sauté greens in garlic and olive oil.
Flaxseed is an easy option for adding prebiotics to foods you already eat. Simply sprinkle flax seed on top of a number of dishes. This is a good way to add prebiotics without having to make major changes to your diet. Flax can also be incorporated into baked goods. Flax seed also contains omega-3 fatty acids, which aid in the management of cholesterol and triglycerides. (34)
Strictly speaking, fermented foods are actually considered probiotics as they are rich in the good bacteria that you want to encourage and grow in the gut. But a number of fermented foods such as kimchi, kombucha, sauerkraut, tempeh, and kefir also contain the prebiotic fibers that are so beneficial: it’s just that they come with the bacteria ‘pre-installed’. When you eat prebiotics, the fibers aren’t digested but ferment in the gut, so eating fermented food directly is a great way of kickstarting the process. (35).
You may be pleasantly surprised to learn that chocolate has prebiotic properties. Research suggests that chocolate, particularly dark chocolate, helps boost “good” bacteria in the digestive tract, particularly bifidobacteria and lactobacilli. Additionally, dark chocolate seems to inhibit the growth of “bad” bacteria in the gut (36.) Moderate amounts of dark chocolate seem to have benefits for blood sugar levels. Be sure you are consuming high-quality dark chocolate—the darker, the better—and enjoy in moderation!
Leeks, especially raw leeks, are good for digestive health and work as a prebiotic. Like many prebiotic foods, leeks contain inulin, which promotes gut health. Leeks also contain vitamin K and offer a number of other health benefits as well (37). Although raw leeks provide the most health benefits, cooked leeks are still a good option. Leeks can be used in place of or in addition to garlic and onion in many recipes.
Beans are a good choice for prebiotics. High in fiber, beans deliver protein and potassium in addition to prebiotics. If your system isn’t used to processing beans, cook them well and add them to your diet slowly to reduce gas and digestive discomfort. Lentils, edamame, and chickpeas are all good sources of prebiotics as well and tend to cause less gas and bloating than beans (38).
Asparagus, especially when consumed raw, is another good source of prebiotics. Like many prebiotic foods, raw asparagus contains inulin fiber. Studies suggest that asparagus appears to fight certain types of cancer while promoting the growth of “good” bacteria in the gut (39).
Jicama is a root vegetable indigenous to Central America. It has the texture of a crisp apple and is wonderful as a substitute for chips or crackers when eating dips. Like many prebiotics, Jicama contains inulin, an indigestible fiber, which feeds “good” bacteria in the digestive tract. It is also low in calories and supports weight loss and maintenance and controls blood sugar (40). If you haven’t yet tried jicama, pick up some at your local market. Peel, slice and consume raw for a crunchy treat! Top guacamole or hummus with crushed raw garlic and use jicama as a dipper for a super dose of prebiotic goodness.
Both raw and cooked onions contain inulin. This means that onions are a good source of prebiotics, in addition to having other health benefits. Onions also contain antioxidants which can boost the immune system. Onions can easily be incorporated into a number of savory dishes. The good news is you are probably already eating onions regularly. (41)
You may be overlooking chicory in your diet, but chicory actually provides a number of benefits in addition to being a helpful probiotic. Chicory root can be used in baking, as it works as a binder. Traditionally, chicory has been used as a coffee substitute. The root can be brewed to create a beverage that mimics the taste of coffee without the acid and caffeine (42). Consider brewing chicory root in place of or simply in addition to your morning coffee as an easy way to add prebiotics to your diet.
Acacia gum is used in many processed foods; it works as an emulsifier. Studies suggest that acacia gum supports the production of Bifidobacteria and Lactobacilli bacteria, both “good” bacteria (43). Acacia gum can be purchased in powder form and sprinkled on top of foods or included in a smoothie.
The Jerusalem artichoke, also known as a sunchoke, is related to the sunflower, not the artichoke. It mimics the artichoke in flavor and contains significant amounts of potassium and iron, in addition to providing helpful prebiotics. Use it raw in a salad or shredded on top of dips. It can also be sautéed with onions, garlic, and greens to create a savory, prebiotic-rich dish. It also works well if cooked and blended into a creamy soup (44). You can even purchase Jerusalem artichoke supplements to be taken orally in capsule form.
Many people consume psyllium husks for digestive health, as they work to improve stool quality and are a natural laxative. But you may not realize that psyllium husks are also a wonderful source of prebiotics. Psyllium ferments more slowly than some other prebiotics, so it has the benefits of producing less gas and moving further down the digestive tract than some (45). It’s easy to purchase psyllium husk powder and stir it into water or juice.
Tips for Incorporating Prebiotic Foods into Your Diet
You are probably already consuming many helpful prebiotics, but it’s easy to incorporate more into your healthy diet. Use these easy strategies to build your daily intake of prebiotics:
- Use onions and garlic whenever possible in your preparation of savory dishes. Not only do these add flavor and dimension to your dishes, but this is an easy way to increase your intake of prebiotics.
- Choose bananas that are greenish, rather than ripe and mushy. If you don’t love the taste or texture of slightly under ripe bananas, use them in a smoothie.
- Top a salad with shredded raw Jerusalem artichokes, adding texture and crunch.
- Chicory root can be brewed as a healthy substitute for coffee. It mimics coffee’s bitter taste without the jitters that can be caused by the caffeine in coffee. Chicory also binds together other ingredients so that you can use it in your baking.
- Acacia gum is found in many commercially prepared products, but you can purchase it in powdered form and sprinkle on top of foods or blend into a smoothie.
- Look for easy ways to create dishes that incorporate more than one prebiotic. For example, hummus, made from prebiotic chickpeas, can be topped with raw garlic or finely diced leeks and paired with raw jicama for dippers. Create a smoothie filled chock full of multiple prebiotics: berries, flaxseed, greens, bananas and acacia gum.
- Prebiotics should be introduced into the diet slowly to avoid gas and other intestinal distress.
- If you suffer from GERD, Crohn’s disease, IBS or other disorders affecting the digestive system, you may want to contact your doctor before adding new prebiotics to your diet.