The low-down on prebiotics

This article originally appeared on the SumoSalad blog. Click here to read more.

You’ve got probiotics sorted: you’re sipping kombucha, dolloping yoghurt on your brekkie and getting in all of that good bacteria. But are you giving the good bacteria the food it needs to thrive? Enter: prebiotics. This lesser known nutrition player is essential for a happy gut.

What are prebiotics?

A prebiotic is basically a form of fibre, but not all fibre is a prebiotic. “There are many different forms of prebiotics, but they are all a form of carbohydrate that resist digestion in the small intestine and reach the colon where they are fermented by the gut microflora,” explains nutritionist Ashleigh James. We know, it’s not glamorous. However, it’s here the magic happens!

“As well as feeding the probiotics in the gut, the health promoting benefits of prebiotics are also due in part to their influence on short-chain-fatty-acids (SCFAs), which are molecules produced by bacteria when they are fermented. While some SCFAs stay in the gut and help with gut motility and mucus production, some others travel far and wide throughout the body, taking part in complex interactions.”

What is the difference between prebiotics and probiotics?

Probiotics are live microorganisms. They are the good bacteria that helps keep your gut healthy and your immune system in top shape. You find them in foods like yoghurt and kimchi or drinks like kombucha. Prebiotics are not alive. They are indigestible fibres that can feed the probiotics in your system.

What foods contain prebiotics?

Don’t worry – you won’t have to buy a bunch of exotic ingredients to get in your prebiotics. A range of plant-based foods contain prebiotic fibres.

“The most well-known and studied group of prebiotics are oligosaccharides – specifically, fructans and galactans, which have been shown to stimulate the activity and growth of beneficial bacteria in the gut,” explains Ashleigh. “Fructans include fructo-oligosaccharides (FOS) and inulins, while galactans consist of galactooligosaccharides (GOS). There are also other fibres that can be classified as prebiotics including resistant starch, pectins and beta-glucans.”

Prebiotics occur naturally in veggies like onion, leek, garlic, asparagus, corn and spring onions. Plus, legumes like chickpeas, soybeans and red kidney beans will up your intake. Snack on nuts like cashews or pistachios or fruits like white peaches and nectarines for extra prebiotic fibre. Oats are also a great source of prebiotics and easy to incorporate into your diet.

How many prebiotics do you need?

Generally, if you’re eating a balanced diet, you should get enough prebiotics without having to consider supplements. Likewise, you probably won’t get too many, either. “It’s unlikely you will go overboard with prebiotics unless you are loading your plate intentionally with prebiotic-rich food,” says Ashleigh. “But if you start getting gas and bloating it’s a good idea to reassess what you are eating and perhaps cut back.”

However, be cautious if you suffer from IBS. “If you have been diagnosed with IBS you might have been put on a specific diet like the FODMAP diet which is void of many of these foods,” says Ashleigh. “If you are following a FODMAP diet you need to be careful about trying to add prebiotics since they can aggravate symptoms. If this is you, speak to a nutritionist or dietitian about when and how to slowly incorporate these foods into your diet.”

What are the benefits of prebiotics?

Prebiotics can get your gut in great shape. “Studies have shown prebiotics have number of health-promoting effects,” says Ashleigh. “This includes reducing inflammation and symptoms associated with inflammatory bowel disease, as well as enhancing the bioavailability and uptake of minerals, including calcium, magnesium and iron. It may also help lower some risk factors for cardiovascular disease and promote satiety and weight loss.”

Also, if you’re putting in the effort to eat all those great fermented, probiotic foods – you don’t want your hard work to go to waste!

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