I think I can safely say that almost all of us have hopped on the Greek yogurt train some time over the last five years or so. Why wouldn’t we? Somebody handed us a creamy treat that apparently will make us lose weight and digest our food because it has this thing called “Probiotics.”
Next thing we know, Jaime Lee Curtis is touting the benefits of Activia and John Stamos is making Oikos look sexy. Probiotics start showing up in our frozen yogurt and people start taking pills with thousands of IUs of bacteria in them. I’m not going to lie. I was right there with everybody. I dutifully bought my Chobani and started taking my PB8 every morning.
But one of the things about writing Healthy Stacey is that it has made me a bit of a skeptic. I no longer take Self Magazine’s nutrition advice to heart. Nor do I blindly accept the latest health finding on the news for truth.
So I went on a personal journey to really understand how, why and IF probiotics work. Long story short (too late, I know): Yes, Yes, and YES.
What is a probiotic?
Probiotics are bacteria. Contrary to popular belief, these bacteria are actually good for us. The digestive system already houses somewhere between 300 and 1000 types of bacteria 1. Their purpose is to keep the intestines healthy and assist in the digestion process.
Okay, that’s awesome. Now why do we need more if we already have it?
Unfortunately, the balance of good bacteria can easily be disturbed. The most common way for this to happen is by taking antibiotics (I think the name itself is self explanatory).
But it can also occur as the result of:
- Too much sugar
- Processed foods
- Toxins in our environment
As you can see, these are all things that are pretty common in most people's lifestyles. Which explains why so many people have bad digestive issues.
So what happens to them?
Bad Bacteria starts to kick Good Bacteria’s ass, which means BAD NEWS BEARS. When the bacteria balance is out of whack, those infamous body warning indicators show up again: Gas, bloating and constipation. But it can get much worse than that.
Other possibilities of bacteria imbalance include:
- Crohn’s Disease
- Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS)
- Ulcerative Colitis
- Colon Cancer
- Candida infection
- Weight gain
- Dairy allergies and intolerances
- Even Asthma and Arthritis (crazy, right?)
Alright. So now I am going to stop being morbid and get to the part where we can fix it. Yay!
We do actually have the ability to add that good bacteria back into the stomach to start balancing things out again. Those good-bacteria-touting probiotics I mentioned earlier don’t just come in pill form. They exist in food too. Fermented food, to be exact.
Why the hell would I want to eat fermented food?
We have all been taught to be deathly afraid of bacteria. God forbid you expose yourself to dirt and germs! You will obviously get sick and probably die. But the thing is, not all bacteria is bad; some of it is really, really good.
When you leave food out for a long time, you expose that food to bacteria. But not the kind that makes you sick. The kind that eats up the carbohydrates in the food and converts them into something essential to the digestive process…
Lactic acid is what our bodies already produce to assist in the digestion process. We’ve all heard of people who are lactose intolerant. This just means that these people’s small intestines are lacking lactic acid to digest the lactose in food.
What I am telling you is that by fermenting your food, you are actually producing the acid your stomach needs before it even enters your body. And when it does…well, it’s a beautiful thing.
FERMENTED FOOD BENEFITS:
- Produce the acid your stomach needs ahead of time, assisting you in the digestive process before it even gets to your saliva and stomach lining
- Not only improve the digestibility of the fermented food, but any cooked food you eat along with it (awesome)
- Multiply the amount of nutrients that your body absorbs from the food
- Slow or reverse some of those diseases I mentioned earlier
- Improve immunity (fully functioning digestive systems are well-equipped to fight off sickness)
This stuff sounds awesome! How do I get it?
The first time I ran out to try my first batch of sauerkraut, I made the rookie mistake of going straight to the condiment aisle in the middle of the grocery store.
The sauerkraut and pickles you find on the shelf are preserved in vinegar. They have not been fermented; they have been pasteurized. Essentially, the good bacteria and other organisms have been destroyed so they could have a long shelf life.
To get the numerous nutritional benefits I listed above, the food must be RAW AND UNPASTEURIZED (i.e. fermented as the result of naturally occurring bacteria).
You will never find raw fermented foods on the shelf. If they are available in your grocery store, they will be in the refrigerated section.
Fermented foods can come in the form of:
- Yogurt (full fat, Greek-style)
- Kombucha (My favorite!)
Whole Foods has the widest selection of fermented foods I have seen (I like this kraut the best and this Kombucha the best). Mariano’s usually has one type of raw sauerkraut available, as well as a good selection of kombucha. And more recently, Trader Joe’s has hopped on the bandwagon and produced their own raw sauerkraut with persian cucumbers for much less than both Whole Foods and Mariano’s (they are so good at that!).
HOW I GET MINE:
- I add sauerkraut to my salads, Kimchi to my sandwiches, or just eat either of them by the spoonful as a snack (warning: they have quite a bite to them, but for a spicy-tooth like me, I kind of love the burn).
- As you already know, I love my Kombucha. I pick one up whenever I go to Whole Foods and continue to be in awe of the immediate boost I get right after I drink it. Next step, make my own! (much cheaper and available whenever I want it)
- I enjoy Greek Yogurt a few times a week. But because it's been marketed to death, there are a lot of brands that have gotten a hold of it, pasteurized it, added tons of sugar, and slapped a health claim on it. So before you blindly pick it up and assume it's healthy, please read the nutrition label. Watch out for high sugar levels and low-fat and non-fat options that use tons of fake sugar to make it taste better. To be sure that it does have probiotics, it needs to have a label that says "live and active cultures." As I mentioned on my Healthy Resources page, Siggi's is one of my favorite for its low sugar content and low list of ingredients. More recently, now that I am happily enjoying fat instead of avoiding it, I have found whole milk yogurt to be my best option. So much more fulfilling and better for you.
- I have yet to explore the raw milk and cheese. Years of veganism and fear of the downfalls of dairy keeps me from really diving into these foods. However, if I can enjoy the decadence of a good stinky cheese and feel good about it, I am totally on board. Open to suggestions if you have them!
Any dedicated health nut will tell you that the best way you can get fermented foods is by making them at home. However, I have little to speak on this topic because I have not attempted this yet. (It’s on my to-do list). I can tell you that, from what I’ve heard, it’s super easy and much less expensive than buying it at the store. We’ll save that for a future post.
THE BOTTOM LINE
Fermented foods were never even part of my vocabulary before I discovered their benefits. But now, I can’t imagine my life without them. Ever since incorporating them into my daily routine, I have noticed immediate differences in my digestion. Personally, I found much stronger results from eating fermented foods than from taking probiotic pills. Although I think they all have their place, to me, nothing beats getting your nutrients from real food.
I highly recommend giving them a try. My stomach, my mind and my entire body are so much happier since I have brought them into my diet. I would much prefer that you see the results for yourself and post your awesome comments below than for me to keep using cheesy lines like that.
Next up on our Happy Stomach Series…
PROCESSED FOODS WITH SUGAR ON TOP – Eating fake food is bad for your shit