Everyone talks about fermented foods and by now you probably know you need them to help keep your gut healthy. But, let’s be honest here, are you actually eating your fair share? If not, you’re missing out on one of Mother Nature’s easiest gut health hacks! A diet rich in fermented foods does wonders from head to toe, promoting a healthy microbiome, strengthening immunity, taming inflammation, supporting better digestion, elimination and even brain health.
What’s also cool about fermented foods is that a little goes a long way. Just a tablespoon or two added to your plate a few times a week will do the trick, adding millions of pro-health probiotic bacteria to your gut with every serving, so no massive dietary overhaul required.
Not sure where to start? Here’s a topline on fermented foods – and how to work more of them into meals so you can start taking advantage of the benefits:
Fermented foods kept our ancestors well.
For thousands of years, fermentation did much of the heavy lifting when it came to food preservation. Fermenting kept foods from spoiling, and enhanced the gut-health-promoting effects of the foods our ancestors ate (whether they realized it or not). But once home refrigeration came along in the early 1900’s, the probiotic party was, for the most part, over. And around the same time, the introduction of pasteurization wound up killing both pathogens as well as most of the health-supportive bacteria in dairy. Net result: most foods lost the ability to deliver daily doses of gut-boosting probiotics. But these days, fermented foods are making a comeback, and this time, we’re starting to understand how valuable their benefits are to maintaining health.
Fermented foods are the Probiotic Cavalry you need to fight gut woes.
When your gut is out of whack, as in overgrown with the bad bacteria that trigger problems like IBS, constipation, bloating, leaky gut, inflammation and so on, your immune system suffers as well. Your defenses are down and you’re at the mercy of just about every pathogen that comes down the pike. And with roughly 80% of your immune system based in your gut, keeping the bad guys in check is essential. One ridiculously easy way to do that? You guessed it — fermented foods. They help inoculate the gut with a variety of helpful bacteria which, among other things, recalibrate stomach acids and boost the release of the enzymes that help your body better absorb nutrients. What’s more, fermented foods can help with weight management by triggering the brain’s “satiety” signals and helping regulate insulin levels – so there’s quite a lot to love here.
Fermented foods play well with others – and don’t need to take center stage.
If you’ve not gotten into fermented foods yet, keep in mind that most of them have a tart, tangy taste so they may take a bit of getting used to. They may initially cause some gas—so start small and go slow – but it’s worth the effort. When you work fermented foods into your diet like raw sauerkraut and kimchi, yogurt, kefir, kombucha, miso, and lacto-fermented pickles, not only are you getting those probiotic health benefits, you’re also instantly enhancing the flavor profile of even the simplest meals – and here are a few no-brainer, hassle-free ways to do it:
- Smoothies: If you’re a morning smoothie fan like me, take advantage of the opportunity to add fermented foods to the mix. Add fermented beet slices and a splash of fermented beet juice (or beet kvass) to a berry smoothie and give your gut some instant TLC.
- Eggs: My friend, renowned chef Seamus Mullen, suggests adding a flavor-and-good-fat kick to your morning eggs by scrambling them in grass-fed butter or ghee, then adding some heat with a dash of fermented chili sauce or paste.
- Soups and Salads: Perk up lunchtime soups and salads with a fermented food ‘topping.’ Swirl in a spoonful or two of kefir into a veggie puree or toss a scoop of kimchi into a lunchtime salad to add personality – and probiotics — to your meal.
- Kombucha: Though kombucha should be a healthy drink, it’s buyer beware as the sugar content in many of the commercially made drinks can be shockingly high. To sidestep the drink’s sneaky sugar bomb aspects, make yourself a refreshing ‘mocktail’ by mixing just an ounce or two of a bottled kombucha with 6 – 8 ounces of seltzer, plus a squeeze of lemon and a pinch of stevia and enjoy.
Buy fermented foods – but read labels very closely.
When buying fermented foods at your local market, read the labels carefully and keep the following five points in mind as you stroll the (refrigerated) aisle:
- Fermented foods will be refrigerated. It’s the cool temperatures that keep all those active cultures alive.
- Fermented foods will say they’re fermented, so if that phrase isn’t on the label, keep moving.
- Fermented foods will not say ‘pasteurized’ on the label, as pasteurization kills bacteria, both friendly and not.
- Fermented and pickled foods are not the same thing. Pickled foods are brined, not fermented, so picked foods will not give you the probiotic benefit of fermented foods.
- Fermented foods are at their best when they’re made with healthy ingredients, as in local or organic and non-GMO – so bypass fermented foods made with conventionally grown veggies and fruit and go for the goods stuff!
Fermented foods are easy to make.
Just about any veggie or fruit can be fermented, so if you’re a do-it-yourself type, you can save some money by making your own. Start by cleaning and chopping the food of your choice, for example, cabbage, carrots, radishes, cucumbers. Next, pack the pieces tightly into a mason jar. Pour in and cover with a solution of one quart water and 2 teaspoons salt. Leave about an inch of space at the top of the jar, screw on the jar top and store in a cool place. Check in on it every other day or so, until there are no more bubbles are visible (usually about 7 -10 days), which is indicates that the fermentation process has ended. From there, the next step is to your fork and enjoy!