Our digestive system is more than just a tract through which our food makes its way. Inside us, there is a whole microbiome consisting of microorganisms like bacteria and fungi that reside there and take part in many body processes. Fermented foods with probiotics help support this microbiome, creating a healthier environment in your gut, which is key to leading a healthy lifestyle overall. These foods have many benefits on top of those related to your digestive system, and we’ll show you exactly why they’re beneficial, how they work in your body, and what to eat in order to improve your gut health. So without further ado, let’s talk about fermented foods and probiotics!
What are they?
Fermented foods go through a process called Lacto-fermentation in which microorganisms known as probiotics (such as yeast and live bacteria) feed on food components like sugars and starch, resulting in the creation of lactic acids. But what does this really mean? Well, to put it simply, these probiotics are good bacteria that help fight bad bacteria, creating a healthy balance, and improving your gut microbiome. Not to be confused with prebiotics, which is the fiber contained in non-digestible parts of foods that reaches your colon undigested and starts fermenting in there, feeding beneficial bacteria (like probiotics) in order to promote their growth. As you see, both are good for you!
Due to the fermentation process that they go through, these foods have a higher shelf life and can be stored at room temperature. But keep in mind, not all fermented foods contain probiotics - some of them go through different processes in order to remove them or make them inactive. Beer is a great example of a fermented beverage that most of the time undergoes a process that kills off any existing active cultures. However, most fermented foods do contain probiotics, even some specific types of beer!
Benefits of fermented foods and probiotics
Fermented foods promote beneficial enzymes, B-vitamins, and omega-3 fatty acids, and there have been many health benefits linked to fermented foods that go beyond basic nutrition, although with limited evidence. These include a reduced risk of diabetes, high blood pressure, bloating, obesity, and cardiovascular disease, and even some anti-inflammatory benefits and enhancement of the immune system. Yogurt in particular, which is one of the most popular fermented foods, has been associated with health attributes related to gut microflora modulation and an improved gut immune response, in addition to the immune-enhancing vitamin D already present in dairy products.
A study published by the CREA Research Center for Food and Nutrition and the DIBAF found that the occurrence of healthy components in fermented foods has a modulatory effect on the brain and the central nervous system due to the enhancement of the gut microbiome. Fermented foods and probiotics have also been linked to increased bone health, better mood and brain activity, and even an improved post-workout recovery!  Further research has found that probiotics may improve athletic performance thanks to their secondary health benefits, enhancing recovery from fatigue, and maintaining a healthy gastrointestinal tract function. 
The bottom line is, these foods are not only beneficial for your gut, they're also jam-packed with nutrients that are a must in your diet if you want to improve your health and fitness!
How to add more of them to your diet
You can add fermented foods to your diet in many ways, you just have to be creative with it and be open to trying new things - you can even ferment your own foods! Knowing why gut health is important is key in order to build a healthier lifestyle, and you can start by adding these fermented foods rich in probiotics to your diet:
Probably the most well-known fermented food, yogurt is made by adding bacteria to heated milk, resulting in a sour taste and a thick consistency. It’s packed with probiotics, calcium, and potassium, and it’s also been linked with improved bone health, blood pressure, and it may be suitable for lactose-intolerant people. But keep in mind, not all yogurts contain live beneficial bacteria, so be sure to check for the label when you’re at the store. The bacteria contained in yogurts with probiotics is called Lactobacillus Acidophilus, so look for that!
Dish tip: Try buying plain yogurt instead of artificially flavored yogurts, they usually contain a lot of added sugar that is not so beneficial for your gut. You can pair plain yogurt with fruit to sweeten it, so grab a bowl of fruits and mix them with some yogurt and other healthy add-ons to make for a nice snack! You can also make smoothies with it, or frozen fruit cubes. Your choice!
This staple Korean dish is made by fermenting vegetables, which are usually cabbage and radish, and mixing it together with a variety of seasonings and condiments like red chili pepper flakes, garlic, sugar, salt, and ginger, creating a saucy plate. Together with probiotics, kimchi is rich in a variety of vitamins and minerals, such as iron and vitamins B2 and D, and its consumption is linked with a decrease in insulin resistance, cholesterol, blood pressure, and body weight.
Dish tip: Kimchi works as a great side dish, and you can also mix it with rice or on top of a bowl of grains!
This fermented food is a favorite because it’s a complete protein! That means that miso contains all nine essential amino acids that your body needs. Traditionally, miso is a seasoning made by fermenting soybeans with salt and koji, which is a type of fungus. Aside from being a complete protein and containing probiotics, it’s also a great source of fiber, vitamin K, manganese, and copper. Miso may also help lower blood pressure and reduce the risk of breast and stomach cancer.
Dish tip: A very common way of eating it is miso soup, a very popular Japanese breakfast. Miso usually tastes salty, so you can also try adding it to a salad or a stir fry.
Kefir is a fermented milk drink made by adding kefir grains to cow or goat milk. It’s very similar to yogurt, only more liquid and even more nutritious! It’s a complete protein just like miso, with high and potent probiotic levels as well as vitamin B12, and it may help improve bone health and lactose digestion problems.
Dish tip: Since this is a milky drink, you can have a simple glass of kefir or you can use it to prepare a bowl of cereal or a smoothie for breakfast. You can even make pancakes with it!
One of the most popular fermented foods with probiotics is sauerkraut, a simple dish consisting of fermented shredded cabbage and sea salt. It is rich in fiber and full of antioxidants that help promote eye health, as well as vitamins C, B, and K. Sauerkraut also comes pasteurized and with added sugars, so if you’re looking to buy some, read the label carefully first! Pasteurized sauerkraut does not contain probiotics since it undergoes a process that kills all beneficial bacteria.
Dish tip: A lot of people like to eat it straight from the jar, but you can also enjoy it with a platter of sliced veggies and use the sauerkraut as a dip. You could also try it in your salad or sandwich for a sour and salty twist.
Sourdough bread is actually one of the healthiest breads out there, and you can probably find it at your nearest grocery store. It’s made by fermenting the dough with naturally occurring yeast and bacteria in order to make the bread rise, which makes it much easier to digest than regular bread. Sourdough bread contains probiotics as well as prebiotics, and it also has a low glycemic index, which means that it has less impact on blood sugar levels. But keep in mind that this bread is not gluten-free, so if you have gluten intolerance then you should explore other fermented options!
Dish tip: You can use sourdough bread to make a variety of sandwiches, or toast it and pair it with some eggs and avocado. It makes for a perfect breakfast dish!
This is a very popular fermented drink that has taken over the world lately. Kombucha is a probiotic drink made by fermenting green or black tea that usually tastes sour, yet sweet, so there may be mixed feelings towards its taste! Even though there is very limited research on the health benefits linked to kombucha, it does contain a lot of probiotics, which help improve your gut microbiome and overall gut health.
Dish tip: Even though it’s fermented, kombucha is still a tea! So you can just enjoy it as it is in a cup, or use it to cook as a marinating sauce or as a substitute for vinegar.
Just like miso, tempeh is a food made from fermented soybeans. It’s a popular dish among vegetarians because it works as a great alternative for meat due to its meaty consistency, paired with an earthy flavor (like mushrooms). Aside from containing probiotics, tempeh is packed with protein and calcium, along with vitamin B12, so it has great nutritional value.
Dish tip: You can replicate almost every dish that has meat in it with tempeh! You can bake it, slice it, stir fry it, make meatballs with it... From sandwiches to vegan burgers, there are so many things you can do with this amazing fermented dish.
Another traditional Japanese dish, natto is a very slippery and flavorful food made from fermented soybeans. It has been linked to improved blood pressure and metabolism, and it’s also very rich in probiotics and fiber, as well as in vitamin K, which help support both digestive health and bone health, respectively.
Dish tip: Natto is often paired with rice, and you can toss some sautéed vegetables in there to make for a great dish!
These are some of the best fermented foods out there that are rich in probiotics, but the list doesn’t stop here! There are many other foods that you can try and even add to your regular diet in order to reap their probiotic benefits. Gut health is incredibly important to everyone, and especially to active people that want to make the most out of their workout routines. Remember that pairing regular exercise with healthy foods that support your overall health is the way to go in order to build a healthier you!