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Prebiotics, Probiotics, and Fiber: What does it All Mean for My Health?

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There is much talk these days about the importance of a high-fiber diet for good health. You may also have heard the terms “prebiotics” and “probiotics” tossed around in those conversations. But what does it all mean, and how can you incorporate them into your diet in a delicious and healthy way? I personally like to avoid trips to the doctor’s office as much as possible, so keeping in good health is very important to me.

I asked Emily Kennedy, a graduate student at Oregon Health & Science University, to fill me in:

“Fiber is any type of non-digestible carbohydrate found in plants, and while fiber is not essential for life, a high fiber diet is associated with improved bowel health, including a possible decreased risk of colon cancer; proper weight management; better controlled diabetes; and decreased cholesterol. There are numerous types of fiber found in foods, but in general, they can be classified into two categories: soluble and insoluble fiber.

Soluble fiber is any fiber that dissolves in water and forms a gel and is found in foods like oats, barley, beans, apples, and citrus. These fibers delay stomach emptying, which helps you feel full longer, and bind with bile salts and dietary fat, decreasing fat and cholesterol absorption. Insoluble fibers are fibers that increase fecal bulk and speed digestion and are found in vegetables and the bran portion of whole grains.

Both types of fiber are important for a healthy diet. However, the dietary recommendations for fiber consist of one recommendation for ‘total fiber’, which combines both soluble and insoluble fiber. Nutrition labels on food packages also usually combine the two fibers under ‘total fiber’ or ‘dietary fiber’. The chart below gives the recommendations for total fiber categorized by age and sex.”

Data taken from the Institute of Medicine’s DRI Reference Tables

 So, where do probiotics and prebiotics fit into the fiber equation? Probiotics are live microorganisms which, when consumed in adequate quantities, are integral in keeping your intestines happy. In other words, probiotics are bacteria found in certain fermented foods that contain active live cultures, like yogurt and kefir, and are vital for maintaining healthy digestion. These “good” bacteria set up home in your large intestine, and they help to maintain normal digestive functions.

Many people believe that probiotics also help to strengthen the immune system and assist in lactose intolerance, but more research is needed to verify these health claims. It is also uncertain which strains of bacteria, in which amounts, and in which combinations result in the greatest health benefits. When choosing a probiotic food or supplement, look for a product that contains multiple strains of bacteria with a high number of active cells (in the billions).

That brings us to prebiotics, which can be thought of as the bridge between fiber and probiotics. Prebiotics are certain types of soluble fiber that feed the “good” bacteria in our guts and stimulate their growth and/or activity. In most cases we get prebiotics from the fiber-containing foods we eat, but prebiotics are also being added to foods containing probiotics.

So now that you have all the information, how do you reap the benefits of a high fiber diet containing probiotics in a way that tastes good? Here are some easy tips:

    • Choose a higher fiber whole grain cereal (at least 5 grams of fiber per serving)
    • Enjoy probiotic rich yogurt as a snack or as part of a meal
    • Try a probiotic like kefir instead of milk on your cereal in the morning
    • Add blueberries or sliced banana to your cereal or yogurt
    • Don’t overcook your vegetables – steam, stir-fry or roast them
    • Add beans to soups, stews, pastas and salads
    • Include more delicious fermented foods in your diet, such as sauerkraut, a food rich in probiotics
    • Toss nuts and seeds into a salad or have them as a snack
    • Choose 100% whole wheat, rye or spelt bread
    • When baking, try using mixtures of flours, like barley, amaranth, whole wheat, rice or rye flour
    • Add ½ cup softened oats to meatloaf, burgers, and meatballs

These tips will help you increase the fiber and probiotic content of your diet, but if none of these tips fit into your diet, you may want to try a fiber or probiotic supplement. There are a variety of supplements out there, but while supplements will get the job done, they very often are not as effective as fiber or probiotics from natural, whole-food sources.

There are two key things to remember in implementing these tips, to avoid constipation:

1) Increase the fiber content of your diet gradually. Don’t make a drastic change in the fiber content of your diet immediately. A gradual increase in fiber will not only help prevent constipation, but bloating and gas as well.

2) Drink lots of water! Soluble fibers absorb water as they pass through your digestive system, and if you aren’t drinking enough water, things will dry up quickly.

I remember my mother telling me how great yogurt was for me when I was young. It never really clicked as to why yogurt was so special, but after hearing more about probiotics, in particular, I’m excited to see if eating more yogurt helps my digestion. Questions or comments about fiber and probiotics? Leave a comment below and I’ll pass along the wisdom.

Images courtesy of Wikipedia
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