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Probiotic foods and your health

published: 05-30-2013 Journal entry icon

Some recent evidence suggests that probiotic foods can contribute toward a healthy population of microorganisms in your digestive tract (gut). But what exactly are probiotic foods?

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), probiotic foods contain “live microorganisms which, when consumed in adequate amounts as part of food, confer a health benefit on the host.” In other words, they are foods that contain microorganisms (primarily bacteria and yeast) that may play a role in keeping the human gut healthy.

An astonishing number and variety of microorganisms—some good and some bad—occupy every nook, cranny, and passageway of our bodies. Most inhabit our digestive tract and play key roles in digesting food and digestive health. Maintaining the proper balance of good and bad organisms is essential. In fact, having more “bad” than “good” microorganisms is also associated with increased risk for short-lasting diseases such as colds and gastroenteritis and long-lasting diseases such as asthma and certain types of cancer.

More than 5,000 different strains of bacteria may reside in the average person’s digestive tract, which makes it hard to determine which ones might be good and which ones might be bad. But generally speaking, two strains seem to offer the greatest benefit to humans—Lactobacillus and Bifidobacterium. Both can be found in many widely available probiotic foods.

Fortunately, it’s easy to find probiotic foods these days. Take a walk down the dairy aisle of your local grocery store and you’ll likely find yourself inundated with products promising a variety of beneficial health effects, many of which are attributed to the products’ probiotic content. Choices include traditional fermented foods such as yogurt, kefir, and buttermilk as well as foods far from the dairy aisle such as sauerkraut, pickles, and miso (a soybean product).

Keep in mind that if you eat a greasy cheeseburger, fries, and a sugary soda followed by a yogurt “chaser,” it’s unlikely you’ll see much benefit from the probiotic organisms in the yogurt. The greatest benefits from eating probiotic foods occur when they are part of a diet that includes whole grains, plenty of fruits and vegetables, and low-fat sources of dairy and protein. For more detailed information, read “Oral Probiotics: An Introduction” from the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine.


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