"Eat your vegetables" might have been your parents' mantra, but "eat your probiotics" might soon overtake that phrase as the parental admonishment du jour. Probiotics are enjoying some major time in the spotlight and for good reason.
When it comes to the benefits of probiotics, research suggests it all comes down to your gut. "Probiotics change the gut into a healthier environment," Toby Smithson, RDN, LD, CDE, diabetes lifestyle expert and author of Diabetes Meal Planning & Nutrition for Dummies, tells LIVESTRONG.com.
"Probiotics are the good bacteria and resemble those that are found in your gut. When we ingest enough probiotics, they can improve the microbiota," Smithson says. "There are numerous studies over the past decade revealing that microbiota may play a major role in the regulation of metabolism [and] in health and disease."
This can lead to a number of benefits. "Probiotics often help with digestion," Maxine Yeung, RD, CPT, a dietitian and personal trainer, tells LIVESTRONG.com. "Many people have an abundance of bad bacteria in their gut, and probiotics can help restore the good bacteria."
There's also some evidence that probiotics might assist with the management of a number of health conditions, including Crohn's disease, diarrhea, eczema, irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) and ulcerative colitis, according to Harvard Health Publishing. Additionally, Yeung says, "Some studies show that increasing your probiotic intake may help with improved mental health, especially with depression, anxiety and stress."
So, how can you ensure that your gut is getting plenty of beneficial bacteria? While Yeung says there are no formal guidelines for servings of probiotic foods, she generally recommends that people eat a serving every day — and you can start with our 10 probiotic-rich foods below.
Read more: 5 Probiotic-Rich Recipes Your Gut Will Love
1. Fermented Vegetables
Along with being a tasty and nutritious snack, fermented vegetables can be a great source of probiotics. Fermented vegetables — think cucumbers (pickles) or beets (like in beet kvass), cauliflower, radishes and so on — offer up a variety of gut-friendly bacteria. The emphasis here is on fermented: These benefits only come from fermented vegetables that are made using a fermentation method (rather than brining with vinegar).
One caveat: Salt is often an important part of the fermentation process, so Smithson says that if you're following a low-sodium diet, you may want to avoid or limit how many servings you dig into.
2. Apple Cider Vinegar
Don't worry, we're not suggesting that you make a habit of chugging vinegar (doing so is actually linked to some pretty ugly side effects!). Instead, Smithson recommends incorporating this probiotic-rich liquid — which is produced through a process of fermentation that's driven by probiotic bacteria — into dressings or marinades. In addition to serving up probiotics, "vinegars contain very low to no carbohydrates and are very low in sodium," Smithson says.
When shopping for apple cider vinegar, make sure to look for products labeled "with the mother" — only these contain live and active cultures.
3. Greek Yogurt
The tangy, versatile snack is made from milk that's been fermented by gut-healthy bacteria, hence its high concentration of probiotics. Fun fact: "Real" yogurt contains one of two specific types of bacteria, Streptococcus thermophilus or Lactobacillus bulgaricus, according to Harvard Health Publishing. While any yogurt with live and active cultures will offer a dose of probiotics, Greek yogurt boasts extra benefits.
In addition to supplying gut-friendly probiotics, Smithson says Greek yogurt also contains a healthy balance of protein and carbohydrates, and is a good source of calcium. Just be sure to opt for varieties that pack in no more than 10 to 15 grams of sugar per serving.
Kefir is essentially drinkable yogurt. Like any yogurt with live and active cultures, it's loaded with probiotics. In fact, "It sometimes has even more probiotics than traditional yogurt," says Yeung. Thanks to its high levels of Bifidobacterium and Lactobacillus bacteria, kefir may help counteract the growth of "bad" bacteria and aid in digestion, she adds.
The result is a healthier gut. Kefir might also help support your immune system and is a solid source of protein as well as calcium and potassium.
While kefir is widely enjoyed as a standalone beverage, you can also find it in products such as ice cream, cheese, ice pops, oatmeal and even veggie-based drinks. Yeung emphasizes that it's important to look for a product with live and active cultures, or else you might not actually get any probiotics. She also recommends avoiding products with lots of added sugar.
Sauerkraut is made from raw, shredded cabbage that's fermented by friendly bacteria. You might be familiar with it as a side dish or a topping for hot dogs or Reuben sandwiches. Thanks to the fermentation process, Yeung says the tangy dish contains plenty of good-for-you probiotics. Not only can sauerkraut support a healthy gut, but Yeung says it's also packed with vitamins, minerals and fiber.
And that fiber is really important, Smithson notes. "A fiber-rich diet (especially one centered around fruits and vegetables) is equally as important as including probiotics as part of a healthy eating plan," she says. "Without adequate fiber in the diet, the probiotics will not be able to survive long enough to produce certain benefits."
When shopping for sauerkraut, make sure to opt for refrigerated varieties. "Shelf-stable sauerkraut does not have probiotics, because the pasteurization process kills the bacteria," says Yeung.
You might not be familiar with kimchi, but you've probably heard of sauerkraut — and we like to think of kimchi as sauerkraut's cousin. Often served as a side next to main dishes, this spicy Korean dish is made from cabbage that's fermented with lactic acid bacteria (a group of bacteria that include the well-known probiotic Lactobacillus). Those bacteria are a major source of probiotics, which is why Yeung considers kimchi one of her go-to probiotic foods.
Beyond cabbage, kimchi often contains additional spices (such as ginger and garlic) and vegetables (think radishes and scallions). The extra spices and veggies make this an especially nutrient-dense dish.
Over the past half-decade or so, kombucha has become a mainstay of the wellness world. This wildly popular beverage is made from fermented black or green tea, and the fermentation process introduces good-for-you-bacteria.
"Kombucha is a popular source of probiotics," says Yeung, noting that the brew also contains antioxidants. Just be aware that it can also be packed with sugar, so choose your brand carefully. Also note that much of the research into kombucha's benefits is still preliminary, and there's not yet much strong human evidence for the brew.
Although traditionally made with soybeans, miso can also be made from fermented rye, beans, brown rice, barley and other grains. According to Harvard Health Publishing, miso is a potent source of probiotics. That's probably thanks to the process of fermentation, which might draw on lactic acid bacteria or even a probiotic-rich fungus.
For a quick fix, try mixing miso paste with hot water for a fast, nutritious soup or try stirring it into marinades. Another healthy hint: Smithson notes that while miso is a beneficial probiotic food, it tends to be high in sodium. So if you're watching your salt intake, opt for a low-salt variety.
Read more: Why Miso Soup Is So Good for You
9. Some Types of Cheese
Fermented cheeses — such as blue cheese, cheddar cheese, Gouda cheese and mozzarella cheese — often contain good bacteria. That's thanks to a fermentation-based process that draws on lactic acid bacteria. For example, 2017 research published in Fermented Foods in Health Disease and Prevention found that blue cheese is fermented by lactic acid and fungi.
Healthful bacteria are sometimes able to survive the cheesemaking and aging processes, meaning they're still present in the cheese when you eat it. For example, a June 2014 study published in the Journal of Applied Microbiology found that probiotic bacteria survived the cheddar cheese-making process. Similarly, a November 2012 study published in the Journal of Dairy Science found that beneficial bacteria can also survive mozzarella's manufacturing process.
That said, these benefits aren't guaranteed. As with yogurt, it's important to shop for cheeses that explicitly state that they contain live and active cultures in order to enjoy a probiotic boost.
Tempeh, made from fermented soybeans, is a great protein-packed meat substitute that boasts a nutty flavor and chewy texture. Plus, it offers benefits beyond protein and probiotics.
Soybeans are naturally high in phytic acid, which decreases the absorption of minerals like iron and calcium; however, tempeh's fermentation lowers the phytic acid content and therefore helps your body take in those vital nutrients, per an August 2006 article in the Journal of Food Science.
While it might be tempting to rush to the grocery store and buy up all these probiotic-rich foods, you're better off introducing them into your diet more gradually.
"A common side effect from eating too many probiotics is having extra gas and bloating," says Yeung. Additionally, "some people experience headaches when eating probiotic foods due to the amines, such as histamine and tyramine, found in those foods."
To minimize the chance of side effects, Yeung recommends going slow. "Gradually introduce probiotics into your diet with a serving a day, and then increase the amount once your digestive system has adjusted." Your gut will thank you!
- Harvard Health Publishing: "Health Benefits of Taking Probiotics"
- Harvard Health Publishing: "The Benefits of Probiotics Bacteria"
- Academic Press: "Fermented Foods in Health and Disease Prevention"
- Journal of Applied Microbiology: "Probiotic Bacteria Survive in Cheddar Cheese and Modify Populations of Other Lactic Acid Bacteria"
- Journal of Dairy Science: "Survival of Microencapsulated Probiotic Lactobacillus Paracasei LBC-1e During Manufacture of Mozzarella Cheese and Simulated Gastric Digestion"
- Harvard Health Publishing: "Your Complete Guide to Choosing a Yogurt to Meet Your Needs"
- Journal of Food Science: "Reduction in Phytic Acid Levels in Soybeans During Tempeh Production, Storage and Frying"