Fermenting foods has been practiced for centuries as a way to extend the freshness of grains, animal products, fruits and vegetables. The simple, natural process of fermenting foods has many health advantages because fermented foods are high in nutrients, digestion-enhancing enzymes and fiber. They also deliver powerful servings of beneficial bacteria that contribute to a healthy gut microbiome.
Our modern-convenience culture lifestyle has led us down a winding path of increasingly dangerous food and eating habits that have taken their toll on our health. Commercial farming has changed the types of foods we eat and the nutritional value of those foods. Processing routinely strips fiber from our food, replacing what’s removed with artificial ingredients and sugar to make it tasty. Healthy fats have been demonized and sugar is being added to everything. All of these things conspire to disrupt the vital processes that happen during digestion in the gut microbiome.
Your gut calls the shots. That’s right, your gut sends thousands of messages to your brain every single day; compared with your brain only sending hundreds of messages to your gut. Our knowledge of the gut-brain connection has emerged out of the gut microbiota field of research; which is the study of the complex community microorganisms that reside in our intestine. The brain, the intestine and its microbiota all communicate; if you impact one, you impact the others.
The brain is responsible for controlling food absorption and the ability to move fluids around. The intestines and microbiota are sending messages that influence the brain and behavior. This is a simplification of a complex communication system, but the brain and the gut are each able to control each other. The vagus nerve connects part of our brain with our intestine, serving as an information pipeline. The gut and its microbiota play an essential role in numerous metabolic functions, such as digestion, calorie and nutrient extraction, and immune strength.
The body knows what to do with foods it is designed to eat. Every bite or sip we take is a chemically coded message that signals the body to do something. Feed your body the right things, and all that messaging works well — you look and feel good. Feed the body processed, sugary, chemically-enhanced things and you are messing with mother nature. Our bodies were never designed to eat The Standard American Diet, and the way we were eating is directly linked to lifestyle diseases like cancer, neurological decline, heart disease, hypertension and depression — to name a few. The gut can only do so much to protect you from bad food.
The great news is that we can control what what we eat and drink.
No one is holding us hostage and forcing us to eat sugary, processed foods that make us sick. What you feed your gut directly determines the messaging sent to your brain. Disrupt the delicate dance from gut to brain and suddenly you are craving sugar, feeling blue, stressing out with anxiety and struggling to sleep. The problem isn’t the calories from the food you are eating, it is the chemical messaging being sent when bad food gets into the gut and interacts with its microbiota.
Enter fermented foods and their amazing power to help us heal, and keep our gut microbiome healthy and happy. Probiotic-rich foods feed our good gut bacteria; helping to improve digestion, promote a healthy weight, boost immunity and elevate mood. What you eat is feeding you and your gut bacteria. When you feed the good bacteria in your body, your health benefits; feed the bad bacteria in your body, it starts to call the shots and you pay with your health.
You can easily start incorporating fermented foods and vegetables into your diet as a way to eat more colorful vegetables and take better care of your all-important gut biome. Look for fermented foods, not pickled foods. Steer clear of vinegary pickled things. You want to eat foods that grow the good bacteria during the fermentation process. You also want to make sure you are eating a diet that is rich in prebiotics; the nutrients that feed your good gut bacteria and help crowd out the bad bacteria.
In a nutshell, prebiotics are food for your good gut bacteria. Probiotics are the beneficial bacteria that modify your gut biome on a temporary basis. Which is why you need to eat a diet that feeds both you and your good gut bacteria. Prebiotics are naturally occurring plant compounds in food, such as indigestible carbohydrates and antioxidant rich polyphenols. The best way to make sure you are getting enough prebiotics is by eating a plant-rich diet; because prebiotics and other naturally-occurring compounds in plants work synergistically. Walnuts, garlic, onions, legumes, bananas, Jerusalem artichokes and asparagus are all rich sources of prebiotics.
Processed foods with added sugars, artificial ingredients and modified fats are some of the worst things you can eat because they feed the bad bacteria in your gut. Worst of the worst are liquid sugars. They create a bad bacteria gut party that kicks the good bacteria out, and signals your brain to send more sugar to keep partying. Now your gut has you craving sweet and and your body is having a low level inflammatory response.
The antidote to gut disruption is a plant-rich eating plan filled with prebiotics to nourish your good gut bacteria (probiotics) and improve your gut health. Fermented foods are a great source of prebiotics and probiotics. Fermenting foods at home is relatively easy, but you can buy health-boosting fermented foods at the grocery store. With a growing focus on the importance of probiotics for overall health, fermented foods are gaining in popularity and you should be able to find most of the foods on this list relatively easily.
Affectionately known as Korean sauerkraut, kimchi is spicy fermented cabbage. It can be eaten as a side dish, used as a topping on meats or stirred into broth.
Lacto fermented cabbage packs a punch of probiotics and fiber. Delicious on cooked meats, as a warm side or cold salad.
A fermented tea beverage flavored with fruit or spices. Has a bit of a sour tang, but is filled with probiotics and polyphenols. Easy sipping, and a healthy alternative to sweetened soft drinks.
A calcium-rich fermented milk drink. Kefir is a great way to add probiotics to smoothies or to sip like a liquid yogurt.
Look for the Live & Active Cultures certification with dairy yogurt. There are also non-dairy yogurts that contain live and active cultures.
Miso should be your new best friend. You can buy organic, gluten-free miso paste and add it to everything from salad dressing to dessert. Miso is a fermented paste made from soybeans, barley or rice, and is best known as the broth for miso soup. Miso makes a probiotic-rich alternative to salt with the benefit of adding umami flavor.
The fermented food trend means you can now find brightly colored lacto fermented veggies, slaws and pickles in most grocery stores. But it is also easy to make your own.
Easy Lacto Fermented Veggies Recipe
- Assemble several glass jars with lids.
- Select veggies for brining. I love carrots, cauliflower, green beans, celery and radishes.
- Slice or halve veggies to fit snugly into glass jars.
- Dissolve 3 Tablespoons kosher salt in a quart of water.
- Pour water into veggie jars and completely cover veggies.
- Add spices or herbs (I add dill and peppercorns) and seal jars. Store in a cool, dry space.
- “Burp” jars every 2 days to release excess pressure. Taste after a week.
Fermented veggies can be stored in the refrigerator for several weeks. Also try my fermented veggie recipe and my lightly pickled carrots with carrot top pesto recipe!