Prebiotics: What are they, and where can I find them?

While probiotics are seemingly all the rage for health-minded dieters recently, prebiotics are usually pushed to the side in gut health talk. Though not widely-known, prebiotics are just as beneficial to the gut as probiotics, and arguably even more so. But what exactly are they and what makes them so special?

Prebiotics are indigestible plant fibers that occur naturally in all sorts of fruits and vegetables, and act to stimulate healthy bacterial growth. Upon digesting these foods, they’re able to feed the good bacteria and act as the gut’s top energy source, helping to boost the number of beneficial bacteria that’s taken up. Just as our bodies need nourishing food to thrive, our gut also needs nourishing “food” to keep our guts filled with healthy bacteria.

Here are some great sources of prebiotics that can be found in your local grocery store, or even in your kitchen already:

Foods with naturally-occurring prebiotics

  • Asparagus
  • Garlic
  • Oats
  • Apples
  • Raw honey
  • Bananas
  • Tomatoes
  • Chia seeds and flaxseeds

For those with conditions like irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) and Crohn’s disease, digesting large amounts of insoluble fiber in fruits, vegetables, and grains, could cause digestive irritation that dissuades people from eating prebiotic-rich foods. For this population, prebiotic supplements may be the solution.

These supplements have even been shown to alleviate symptoms of IBS and anxiety, likely due to gut health’s connection to mental health status. Additionally, studies have shown that supplementation increases Immunoglobin A, an antibody part of the immune system that is often found in the digestive tract, meaning it may have a protective immunity effect.

Below are fibers to look for on a supplement label if your doctor or dietitian believes supplements are suitable for your lifestyle:

  • Fructans (inulin and fructooligosaccharides):
  • Resistant starch
  • Pectin
  • Rhamnose

Be mindful that not all supplements could have these fibers explicitly listed. For example, potato starch could be listed in the ingredients, but it’s just the source used to provide resistant starch.

A balanced gut is supported by both prebiotic and probiotic foods. Mounting evidence continues to show that prioritizing gut health can take personal wellness to a whole new level! It plays a role not only in digestion, but mood, weight, energy levels, and even sleep. It’s estimated that 60-70 million Americans suffer from digestive problems. If you think you may be struggling with gut issues, talk with your healthcare provider for assistance with identifying any dietary gaps/imbalances that could possibly play a role in your gut health.


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About the Author

Shyla Cadogan

Shyla Cadogan is a recent graduate from the University of Maryland, College Park with a Bachelor’s of Science in Nutrition and Food Science. She is on her way to becoming a Registered Dietitian, with next steps being completion of a dietetic internship at the University of Maryland Medical Center. Shyla has extensive research experience in food composition analysis and food resource management.

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