Groundbreaking new research has revealed the importance of the microbiome, the vast community of bacteria that lives within us. It turns out these bacteria outnumber our cells by a factor of 10 to 1! Believe it or not, we are more bacteria than we are human. The microbiome in our gut governs many of our body’s key functions and is crucial to our overall health. A balanced microbiome regulates the immune system, metabolism, sustains the gastrointestinal tract, supports mood and brain function, produces crucial vitamins and nutrients, and helps us maintain a healthy weight. I wrote extensively about the microbiome and its contribution to our health in my new book, The Microbiome Diet.
So if you want to lose weight and feel better it’s essential that you balance the microbiome in your gut. One of the most effective ways to do that is by eating fermented foods. Fermented foods are rich in live bacteria that replenish the microbiome, helping it maintain the right proportion of friendly bacteria for optimal health and weight loss. I call fermented foods part of the new generation of Superfoods.
These Superfoods help our bodies absorb nutrients and keep our microbiome balanced. An unbalanced microbiome causes gut distress, so even if we take all the vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants in the world we won’t really improve our health.
So on the Microbiome Diet I include the next generation of superfoods: the foods, spices, and supplements that help heal our gut and balance our microbiome. Chief among them are fermented foods, which are the next frontier in prepared foods. In fact, fermented foods might even become the new American cuisine.
Fermented Foods: Natural Probiotics
Probiotics are pills, powders, or capsules that contain billions of live bacteria, which help replenish your microbiome. Fermented foods are a type of natural probiotic, because they contain so many live bacteria along with many other crucial nutrients.
Every culture in the world has its own fermented foods, which is a strong indication of how crucial they are to our health. The chart below offers a brief sampling of fermented foods around the world.
a fermented milk drink
douchi, a fermented black bean sauce
China, Middle East
kombucha, a fizzy, fermented tea
kvass, a fizzy beer-like drink made from black or rye bread
injera, a spongy bread made from fermented teff flour
fufu, a fermented product made from cassava, yams, or plantains
bhatti jaanr, fermented rice food-beverage gundruk, a fermented leafy vegetable kodo ko-jaanr, a fermented millet product sinki, a fermented radish
dhokla, a steamed food made from fermented rice and chickpeas dhosa, a dish of fermented rice and lentils
miso, fermented soybean paste, used in soups and sauces natto, fermented soybean cake tempeh, steamed and mashed fermented soybeans
pulque, fermented alcoholic beverage made from cactus juice
garri, a fermented product made from cassava
kvass, a fizzy fermented beer made from black bread or rye bread
poi, fermented taro past
pla ra, fermented fish sauce
You can find fermented foods in many forms: pastes, seasonings, condiments,
curries, stews, pickles, and even candy. They can be fried or boiled or sometimes candied, and they can be eaten in main dishes, side dishes, salads, or desserts.
Fermented drinks also take many forms. They can be alcoholic, such as beer and wine, or nonalcoholic, such as certain teas, vinegar-based drinks, or buttermilk.
The universal consumption of fermented foods is the strongest possible demonstration of how much we humans need this type of food in our diets. Sadly, the growing prevalence of Western fast foods and packaged foods is wiping out traditional food cultures, which I have come to believe is one of the primary causes of the worldwide obesity epidemic.
Fortunately, as health consciousness grows, interest in fermented foods has grown as well. The following foods are healthy fermented foods that are readily available in the United States and can be easily incorporated into a Western diet:
• Sauerkraut—a version of fermented cabbage eaten throughout Eastern Europe, Russia, Austria, and Germany
• Kimchee—a Korean version of fermented cabbage, carrots, onions, and garlic
• Fermented vegetables—available ready-made in most stores and online
• Kefir—a fermented milk drink from the north Caucasus
• Yogurt—another type of fermented milk product eaten throughout central and west Asia, India, central Europe, and the Balkans
All of these foods are frequently found in the meal plans and recipes in The Microbiome Diet. I highly recommend them, both for weight loss and for overall improvement of numerous symptoms, including depression, anxiety, brain fog, skin problems, hormonal issues, immune weaknesses, digestive problems, and fatigue. A healthy microbiome can transform our endocrine, immune, digestive, and nervous systems—and by supporting the microbiome, fermented foods support these aspects of the body as well.
The name “sauerkraut” literally means sour cabbage. The cabbage is pickled by a process known as lacto-fermentation, in which glucose and other sugars in the cabbage are converted into energy and lactic acid. Various types of bacteria—including lactobacilli, leuconostoc, and pediococci—enable the fermentation. These bacteria are also crucial in promoting balance within the microbiome.
A number of companies make organic sauerkraut. One that I recommend to many patients is Bubbies (www.bubbies.com), which makes a number of high-quality fermented and picked products, including an excellent sauerkraut and some wonderful pickled green tomatoes.
Both the sauerkraut and the tomatoes are natural probiotics—sources of live bacteria. The tomatoes are also a natural prebiotic—sources of the dietary fiber on which friendly bacteria feast. Tomatoes are full of a prebiotic known as arabinogalactans, which are extremely nourishing to helpful bacteria and thereby promote microbial balance.
Tomatoes are also rich in lycopene, a prime antioxidant, and in vitamin C, another antioxidant. They have plenty of vitamin A, which helps to heal the gut. They also offer have terrific cardioprotective benefits through lowering cholesterol and triglycerides and reducine platelet stickiness. They are also good for bone health.
For a more exotic sauerkraut, a company called Wildbrine (www.wildbrine.com) offers a red beet and sauerkraut salad, a curried cauliflower and sauerkraut salad, and a ginger sauerkraut salad, as well as a more traditional dilled sauerkraut.
Koreans find kimchee so delicious that they eat some with virtually every meal. We Americans could do far worse than to imitate their example, since kimchee is one of the healthiest probiotic foods there is, with proven support for weight loss as well.
A 2011 study published in the journal Nutrition Research found that fermented kimchee had a significant impact on the weight and body fat of the overweight and obese patients who were being studied. Not only did the patients shed both weight and fat, they also showed improvements in blood sugar, blood pressure, and the waist-hip ratio—an important biomarker of metabolic health.
Kimchee has also been shown to lower cholesterol, prevent constipation, and combat colon cancer. In addition, it can help to reduce stress, relieve depression, combat osteoarthritis, reduce atherosclerosis, and fighting liver disease.
Sunja’s (www.sunjaskimchi.com) offers a wonderful line of fermented vegetables prepared kimchi-style. In addition to the traditional kimchi-style cabbage, you can find fermented kale, radish, cucumber, and beets. There is also a “white kimchi” that offers the health benefits of fermentation without the spiciness of traditional kimchi.
Like pickled and fermented tomatoes, fermented radishes offer a double benefit: the fermentation offers a natural probiotics; the radishes are a natural prebiotic. Radishes are also high in magnesium and manganese (crucial for the production of digestive enzymes), vitamin C (a terrific antioxidant and immune system support), calcium (for bone health), folate, and vitamin B6 (good for coping with stress and supporting brain function). In addition, radishes offer some ability to combat inflammation, an immune system response that promotes weight gain.
Wildbrine also offers two variations on traditional kimchi—a Japanese-style miso and horseradish kimchi and a Thai-flavored kimchi prepared with lemongrass, mint, red curry, and pineapple—as well as a traditional Korean version.
As we have seen, fermented vegetables are natural probiotics, and many are also natural prebiotics. In addition to the fermented vegetables offered by Sunja’s, you can find excellent choices from Bao Fermented Food and Drink, which offers a fermented cabbage that it markets as “Raw Slaw,” as well as a fermented hot sauce and—one of my favorites—a fermented ketchup. Unlike most traditional ketchups, which are loaded with sugar and other problematic ingredients, Bao’s raw, sour, and fermented ketchup offers plenty of tangy flavor but no added sugar, gluten, or preservatives.
Bao also makes kombucha, a fermented tea and a refreshing natural probiotic drink. Bao’s kombucha comes in seven flavors: original, berry, ginger, grape, mango, spice, and super green.
Kefir—a fermented milk drink that resembles a liquid yogurt—is yet another natural probiotic. In addition to promoting microbial balance, it offers incredible support for your immune system and has traditionally been used to treat tuberculosis and cancer.
Sadly, many types of commercially available kefir are sold with fruit and other flavorings mixed in. This destroys the live bacteria and also adds many grams of sugar to the product, making it counterproductive as a weight-loss food and problematic for health generally. Kefir needs to be plain and unflavored to retain its full health benefits, although serving it with fresh fruit is fine.
Goat’s milk kefir has also become commercially available. This is fortunate, because many people are sensitive to cow’s milk but can tolerate from sheep’s and goat’s- milk products.
Goat’s milk kefir—if unflavored and packaged without fruit—allows many more people to benefit from kefir without risking the inflammatory challenges that might be produced by the cow’s milk.
Like kefir, yogurt has numerous health benefits—but only when it is packaged plain, unflavored, and without fruit, although serving it with fresh fruit is fine. The health benefits of yogurt are numerous, as are its weight-loss benefits. In June 2011, the New England Journal of Medicine reported on research linking yogurt consumption with improved weight.
The article reported on “Intriguing evidence [which] suggests that changes in colonic bacteria might influence weight gain.” A year earlier the British Journal of Nutrition found that the kinds of bacteria found in yogurt produced improvements in insulin sensitivity and inflammation.
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