Probiotics and prebiotics aren’t the same. Probiotics are "good" bugs that benefit your health.
Prebiotics are nutrients that help your “good” bacteria grow. They’re generally types of fiber.
Your body can't digest prebiotics. They support your overall health by feeding the "good" bacteria and other microbes in your gut, promoting the health of your gut microbiome.
Your “gut microbiome” refers to the trillions of bacteria and other microbes that live in your gut. This microbiome has many jobs, like absorbing nutrients, helping with digestion, and protecting you against pathogens.
A healthy gut microbiome is crucial for good health.
In this article, we'll look at some prebiotic foods that can help promote the health of your gut microbiome and your body overall.
ZOE is a world leader in the study of the gut microbiome. Our scientists have identified 15 "good" and 15 "bad" bugs associated with positive and negative health.
With the ZOE at-home test, you can learn which bugs are living in your gut and what you can eat to help support your "good" bugs.
Before we get going, we should mention that many foods rich in prebiotics contain fermentable oligosaccharides, disaccharides, monosaccharides, and polyols. Together, these are called FODMAPs.
They can trigger irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) symptoms in some people with the condition.
So, if you have IBS, ask a healthcare professional before changing your diet to include more of the prebiotic-rich foods below.
An awareness of mushrooms’ health-promoting properties can be traced back to ancient Egyptian and Chinese communities.
Mushrooms contain a number of prebiotics, including chitin, hemicellulose, mannans, galactans, and xylans. These are all polysaccharides — chains of carbohydrates — and they help nourish “good” gut bacteria.
Mushrooms are also rich in B vitamins, and some are rich in vitamin D. They also contain minerals, like selenium, copper, and potassium.
These fungi are hearty and very versatile. You can add them to casseroles, soups, salads, pastas, and pizzas.
A tasty staple, onions are rich in inulin and fructooligosaccharides (FOS), which are among most common prebiotic molecules.
In other words, a basic onion soup might have more health benefits than you realize.
Like onions, garlic contains the prebiotics inulin and FOS to help good gut bacteria thrive.
And, more specifically, some evidence suggests that another prebiotic in garlic, called fructan, might stimulate the growth of beneficial Bifidobacteria.
Garlic also contains allicin, which gives it its distinctive smell and taste.
Scientists are studying this compound to see if it may help ward off heart disease, cancer, and other conditions.
Part of the Liliaceae family, asparagus is closely related to garlic, chives, and shallots.
It's another vegetable that contains inulin — a soluble fiber that feeds friendly Bifidobacteria and Lactobacillus gut bacteria.
Also, asparagus is rich in folate, a B vitamin essential for cell division and making red blood cells. It also contains vitamins C and E, as well as polyphenols.
If you're not used to cooking with asparagus, why not try an asparagus salad topped with a runny poached egg?
5. Savoy cabbage
Savoy cabbage is a popular Brasica vegetable that can help support your “good” gut bugs.
Cabbages contain vitamins B6, C, and K, plus a wide range of antioxidants and other beneficial phytochemicals, which are chemicals produced by plants.
Importantly, they’re also rich in prebiotic fiber, with about 2.2 grams per cup.
Savoy cabbage is versatile and tends to be readily available. It works well in stews and soups, and you can also just roast slices or chunks with a dash of olive oil.
6. Cocoa powder
Being rich in polyphenols, cocoa may have antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties.
Cocoa polyphenols can also act as prebiotics. They interact with our gut microbiota, enhancing the growth of beneficial gut bacteria.
Also, studies show that cocoa polyphenols might help reduce the number of potentially harmful bacteria like those in the Clostridium family.
To get the health benefits of cocoa powder, try adding it to oatmeal, smoothies, or yogurt.
Whole oats contain a fiber called beta-glucan, plus resistant starch.
Whole oats are also associated with heart health benefits.
Plus, oats contain phosphorus, thiamine, magnesium, zinc, and other beneficial phytochemicals.
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Flaxseeds are packed with prebiotic dietary fibers.
Like other prebiotics, these fibers promote the growth of healthy gut bacteria. They may also encourage regular bowel movements and reduce the amount of dietary fat your body digests and absorbs.
For people with IBS, flaxseeds might help with constipation and abdominal symptoms.
These seeds are unlike other sources of prebiotics, which are rich in FODMAPs and can exacerbate IBS symptoms. So, dietitians often recommended flaxseeds to people with the condition.
You might try adding these seeds to smoothies, salads, and granola. You can also incorporate them into pancake, muffin, and breakfast bar recipes.
Leeks are in the Allium family, like garlic and spring onions. They, too, contain the prebiotic compound inulin.
As we’ve mentioned, scientists think Allium vegetables may benefit your cardiovascular health.
A 2017 study concluded that a higher intake is associated with a 64% reduction in cardiovascular risk. Still, confirming this requires more research.
These nuts are packed with beneficial nutrients, including high levels of prebiotic polyphenols, which fuel “good” gut bacteria.
They're also rich in fiber — 100 g offer around 3.3 g of fiber.
Cashews also contain a range of other nutrients, such as calcium, iron, magnesium, potassium, zinc, copper, selenium, and vitamins C, B6, B12, D, E, and K.
Almonds pack a fiber punch, with 100 g containing 11 g of fiber. Plus, they’re rich in polyphenols, healthy fats, magnesium, and vitamin E.
Eating almonds may not directly affect which bugs you have in your gut. But one team of scientists — including ZOE’s chief scientist, Dr. Sarah Berry — found that when people ate almonds every day for 4 weeks, they had higher levels of butyrate than people who didn’t.
Butyrate is a type of fatty acid that good gut microbes make, and it’s beneficial for your health.
12. Chicory root
Chicory root is in the dandelion family, but it tastes like coffee. People make caffeine-free teas and coffee substitutes from it. You can also use it like any other vegetable, such as by adding it to a soup or stew.
The prebiotic molecule inulin makes up 68% of the root’s dry weight, so you don't need a lot to get the benefits.
13. Jerusalem artichokes
Moving on to the sunflower family, Jerusalem artichokes contain just under 2 g of inulin-rich dietary fiber per 100 g. This makes them a powerful source of prebiotics.
These root-like vegetables are also rich in iron, potassium, vitamin B1, and antioxidants. Plus, they contain compounds that might have anti-cancer properties.
For a nutrient-rich winter warmer, try Jerusalem artichoke and horseradish soup.
Oats and barley are rich in prebiotic beta-glucan, which supports the growth of probiotic bacteria in the digestive system.
The beta-glucan in barley may help support the immune system and reduce cholesterol and glucose levels in the blood.
You can use pearl barley to make a risotto, salad, or hearty soup.
Apples are rich in vitamin C, antioxidants, and fiber. Most of the fiber in apples is pectin, which has prebiotic qualities.
Scientists need to do more research in humans, but a 2016 study in rats found that pectin from apples could promote healthy gut microbiota, decrease inflammation, and suppress weight gain.
Stewed or freshly chopped apples can be a great addition to your morning oats or granola.
16. Burdock root
Burdock root is native to Northern Asia and Europe. It belongs to the Asteraceae family, alongside chicory root, Jerusalem artichokes, and Yacón tubers.
It’s rich in fiber, including inulin, and has high levels of FOS. Burdock root also contains phenolic compounds, which are antioxidants.
If you've never cooked with burdock root before, treat it like any other root vegetable. Boil it, roast it, or add it to a warming stew.
A diverse gut microbiome packed with beneficial microbes is essential for good health. Adding prebiotic food to your diet supports the “good” bacteria in your gut, helping them thrive.
Prebiotics occur naturally in many foods, including onions, garlic, oats, nuts, cabbage, leeks, and barley.
For more dietary health tips, check out our article on how to support your gut health.
Through our PREDICT studies, ZOE has collected the world's largest set of gut microbiome data linked to diet and in-depth metabolic responses.
To learn more about the microbes in your gut, take a look at the ZOE test kit, which includes the most advanced gut microbiome test in the world.
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