Many of my clients and friends have heard me say, Eat something raw at every meal and something fermented every day.
Besides the fact that fermented foods are phenomenally tasty, they feed the beneficial bacteria that live in our gut. You may have heard a lot of buzz recently about the “microbiome”–this is just fancy talk for the world of bugs, good and bad, that live both on and in us. About 100 trillion bacteria colonize our body, which is more than 10 times the number of cells in your body. Of those bacteria, the majority live in the large intestine. The composition of your gut flora changes depending on diet, lifestyle, and age, but at any given time we are carrying 3 to 4 pounds of bacteria, made up of over 800 species.
The good bacteria in our guts provide protection from infection by bad bacteria, stimulate the immune system, help to digest foods, and synthesize some vitamins, such as K and B12. If fed properly with vegetables and fruits, the good bacteria produce short chain fatty acids, which contribute to the health of the cells of the gut lining and provide you with an extra source of energy. The good bugs also work to correct overgrowth of bad bacteria which cause inflammation. Bad bacteria also cause food cravings, by sending chemical messages to our brains that affect our appetite and mood, making us feel anxious and crave comfort foods like refined carbs and chocolate. A proper balance of good bugs is also thought to promote maintenance of a healthy weight by controlling appetite and cravings.
What we eat determines the kind of bugs we will grow in our gut gardens, as the bacteria follow the food. Probiotic and fermented foods include good bacteria, which aid digestion and help to balance the gut flora in a positive direction. Some great sources of fermented foods include:
Fermented dairy. Be sure that the label says it includes live and active cultures. Avoid any added fruits, as they often are very high in sugar, which is the number one bad-bug-feeding ingredient we want to avoid. Kefir is a tangy yogurt drink you might try. Other sources include buttermilk and aged cheeses. Goat and sheep milk yogurts are often well-tolerated by those who cannot digest cow’s milk–although the fermentation of any milk greatly increases its digestibility. Many people who cannot drink cow’s milk can eat yogurt with no problem. Of course, to support general health, we want all our dairy products to be organic and full fat.
Coconut kefir. Made from coconut water, this tangy fermented drink is brimming with probiotics. Sold in small bottles at Whole Foods and other health stores, you only need about a shotglass-full a day.
Pickled vegetables. These include brined pickles and olives with no added sugars or vinegars (meaning they were naturally allowed to ferment with the addition of just salt and maybe whey), unpasteurized sauerkraut, kimchi, and pickled beets and other vegetables. Beet kvass is a fermented drink made from beet juice, and is a great option.
Fermented soy. This includes foods such as natto and miso, but should be used in small amounts and with caution, as soy can be highly undigestible, and does contain plant estrogens.
Sourdough bread. Ah, bread. I’m talking about the real good stuff here, usually made by artisanal bakers from long-fermented sourdough starter. This is often more tolerable to people who cannot handle wheat gluten digestively.
Kombucha. Technically fermented sweet tea, look for one with the lowest sugar amount possible, meaning it was allowed to fully ferment and “eat” up all the natural sugars.
One word of caution: if you aren’t currently eating any fermented foods, you’ll want to start to slowly introduce them, thinking of them as a condiment or side dish. If your gut balance is off, adding a huge influx of good bacteria can create a bit of a “war” with the bad bugs, leading to digestive upset.
So remember, something raw at every meal, and something fermented every day!