Is a prebiotic diet important for the health of your digestive system? You’ve probably read or heard a lot about probiotics, the “good” bacteria that support gut health, but you might not have given a lot of attention to prebiotics. But although prebiotics might not get the notoriety of probiotics, that doesn’t mean they’re not just as important.
Here’s a look at prebiotics, how they can help your digestive tract, and how they may also benefit your overall health. You’ll also find a list of prebiotic foods that you might consider making a part of your healthy diet.
What Are Prebiotics And What Do They Do?
For starters, prebiotics are types of dietary fiber that the body can’t digest. But that doesn’t mean they go to waste – far from it. Prebiotics act as a fuel source for probiotics. They help probiotics go about their business of making sure you have enough good microbes in your gut to counteract the effects of the bad ones.1
Now, your colon ferments prebiotic fibers. And this process leads to the fatty acid production that provides energy to your gut flora, or the microbes that live in your small intestine and other areas of the digestive system.2
As you’ll see in a bit, several foods act as good sources of prebiotics. You can also boost your supply by taking prebiotic fiber supplements. Whether you get them through food or through dietary supplements, there’s a good chance you can benefit from them. Just make sure you speak with your doctor first before you take any sort of supplement, or before you make any major changes to your eating habits.
What Is The Difference Between Probiotics And Prebiotics?
For some people, it may be easy to confuse the two. Here’s a little bit of information to clear up any potential confusion on the difference between prebiotics and probiotics.
Probiotics help maintain a balance between beneficial and harmful microbes in your digestive tract – and there are trillions of them. These microbes are collectively known as gut flora. You might not think there’s any such thing as “good” bacteria, but there are actually quite a few that can support your digestive health. Probiotics, or good microbes, help keep the harmful microbes from taking over and causing problems.3
While probiotics are most closely associated with digestive health, there’s also evidence they could help support heart health as well. In fact, some research suggests that probiotics actually “eat” cholesterol, helping support a strong cardiovascular system.4
Prebiotics, on the other hand, are the fibers in food and supplements that provide the fuel probiotics need to do their job. It may be easy to think of it this way: prebiotics are the food that probiotics eat to survive.
Which Foods Are Naturally High In Prebiotics?
You might already be eating some foods that contain a good supply of prebiotics. You will find them in a lot of vegetables. Here are just a few examples.
Sweet potato not only contains prebiotic fibers, it also contains a substance known as resistant starch. This helps the body in many ways. It’s low on the glycemic index (which basically means it helps keep blood sugar at a safe level), reduces cholesterol, and helps increase the production of beneficial amino acids in the large intestine. Purple sweet potato contains anthocyanin, an antioxidant which may help reduce the risk for potential health issues caused by oxidative stress.5
Sweet potato is also high in vitamin A, which helps protect your vision and also helps your immune system work as it should.6 Think about that the next time you have a sweet potato, or another prebiotic rich side dish like baked beans.
Have you ever had lentil soup? If you did, you likely boosted your supply of prebiotics. A lentil is a whole grain legume, a food that’s really popular in Europe, South America, Africa, and many other areas of the world. Lentils contain prebiotics known as oligosaccharides. These have been shown to help the body do a good job of absorbing calcium.7 Lentils and other legumes, like beans, are also a good source of vitamin B.8
Asparagus is a prebiotic that helps stimulate the production of good bacteria, but it may also help support health in other ways.9 A four-ounce serving of asparagus contains between 2-3g protein.10
As a bonus, this vegetable is also a good source of vitamin K. This is a vitamin that helps ensure that your blood clots properly. Just one cup of cooked asparagus provides 76 percent of your recommended daily intake of vitamin K.11
What Are The Health Benefits Of Eating A Diet High In Prebiotics?
There are a lot of ways following a diet high in prebiotics might help support your overall health. Here are some of the more important ones.
- Bone strength – Foods that are high in prebiotics, such as lentils, help make it easier for your body to absorb calcium. Other prebiotic foods help the body metabolize magnesium and iron. All of these nutrients help keep your bones strong. If you increase your intake of prebiotic foods by as little as eight grams a day, that could really support your calcium supply.12
- Digestive health – You’ve already learned that probiotics support a healthy digestive system. But how does this happen? One way is through prebiotics. When probiotics ingest prebiotic fibers, this stimulates butyric acid production.13 Butyric acid is really important to your gut. It keeps harmful microbes from entering the digestive tract by making your intestinal lining stronger.14
- Immune health – It appears that prebiotics can also support a healthy immune response. Healthy prebiotic food and prebiotic fiber supplements may make it easier for your body to absorb certain nutrients that help you ward off certain pathogens.15
How Are Probiotics And Prebiotics Related? Can You Get Both From One Food Or Dish?
You can see that probiotics and prebiotics share a really important connection. Just like you ingest food to fuel your body, probiotics get their fuel from prebiotics. There are actually foods that combine both – these are known as synbiotics.16 One of these foods is whole grain pasta.17 You can easily find this type of pasta at your local grocery store or whole food market.
Studies on synbiotics have shown promising results in regard to potential health benefits. It appears they may be able to help with weight loss, and may also help people dealing with health issues related to high blood sugar levels.18
Are Prebiotics Worth Further Consideration?
You might want to talk to your doctor about whether you should add more prebiotic-rich foods or supplements to your diet. If you get the medical approval, there’s a chance you could reap the health benefits of prebiotics for years to come.