Why You Should Add Fermented Foods to Your Diet

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Practiced by nations around the globe for centuries, the art of food and beverage fermentation has recently made a very popular comeback. And while, in days gone by, fermentation was mostly used as a way to preserve foods before access to refrigeration was commonplace, its revival has been driven largely by a quest for better gut health.

What is fermentation and how does it contribute to gut health?

But what exactly is fermentation and how is it linked to gut health? In very simplified terms, fermentation takes place when microorganisms convert the organic compounds in food and drinks, e.g. starch and sugar, into acids and alcohols. These substances, with their distinctive, sour taste, then act as natural preservatives that keep foods consumable for longer.

And while the preservation of food is a big perk of fermentation, the process also has an equally beneficial spin-off. Because as the starches and sugars in food are converted into acids and alcohols, beneficial bacteria are also enhanced. Then, when ingested, these beneficial bacteria help the good bacteria in your gut to successfully do its job.

But what exactly is the job of good bacteria in your gut? While it starts with good digestive health ( i.e. contributing to the breakdown of food and absorption and assimilation of nutrients), it also plays a vital role in the functioning of the immune system. Did you know that up to 80% of your immune system is housed inside your gut? It is therefore not difficult to see that what you ingest, whether bad or good, is bound to have an impact on your general health.

Additional perks of eating fermented foods

In addition to boosting the functioning of your own good intestinal bacteria, eating fermented foods also have the following perks:

  • Fermented foods are easier to digest. Since fermentation breaks down some of the sugars and starches in food, it makes it easier to digest.
  • Fermentation can increase the availability of micronutrients for absorption. By removing some of the natural compounds in plants that interfere with nutrient absorption, like phytic acid found in seeds and legumes, fermentation makes nutrients like iron and zinc more readily available for absorption.
  • Eating fermented foods may boost the synthesis of vitamins in the gut. By boosting the beneficial bacteria in the gut, you are increasing their ability to produce Vitamins K2 and B12.
  • Healthy gut = Healthy mind. According to associate nutritionist, Jo Lewin, “serotonin – a neurotransmitter involved in mood – is made in the gut and research further suggests that as probiotic bacteria contribute to a healthy gut, they are also linked to a healthy mind”.
  • It benefits other parts of the body too. Registered dietitian, Shaistha Zaheeruddin, says that boosting beneficial bacteria through the ingestion of fermented foods can improve bacteria present in other areas of the body too. Some studies have, for example, found that Lactobacillus can increase the cure rate of vaginal inflammation.
  • It may improve quality of life for allergy sufferers. According to Zaheeruddin, “probiotics may help reduce symptom severity, decrease use of relief medication and improve overall quality of life for individuals with allergies”.

Popular fermented foods to include in your diet

So which foods and drinks should you take in order to boost your gut health and, in effect, also your immunity and mental health? Here’s a list of some of the most popular fermented foods and drinks:

1. Kombucha

This fizzy, fermented tea drink has recently seen a huge surge in popularity. And while many people are only starting to experience the purported health benefits of this drink now, kombucha has been around since 220 B.C. Having originated in north-east China, kombucha was prized for its detoxifying and energizing properties at the time.

Note that, while kombucha drinkers worldwide swear by its positive impact on gut- and general health, scientific evidence based on human models is still frustratingly lacking in this regard. So does this mean that we should throw the baby out with the bathwater? You decide. A number of animal studies have been done on the impact of kombucha on various health- and physiological aspects to date, many of which have delivered promising positive results.

2. Sauerkraut

This easy-to-make fermented cabbage dish has also been around for centuries. And, in addition to its probiotic benefits, it also boasts the following:

  • It’s high in fiber
  • It has high levels of Vitamins A, C, K and different B vitamins
  • It’s a good source of iron, copper, manganese, and calcium

If opting for a store-bought version of sauerkraut, be sure to choose one that has not been heat-treated. Instead, choose one that is labeled “raw” or unpasteurized”.

3. Kefir

Kefir is a cultured probiotic drink that contains various strains of yeast and bacteria. Rich in a number of vitamins and minerals, it is especially known for its high levels of Vitamins B and K.

In order to avoid added sugars, carefully study the ingredient list of your kefir drink of choice. In many cases opting for a plain version might be a better (read: healthier) bet than getting a flavored one.

4. Kimchi

Brace yourselves, fussy eaters, for this is another fermented cabbage/veggie dish. Generally spicier than sauerkraut, this Korean staple delivers a good dose of Vitamins A, B1, B2, as well as iron, selenium, and calcium.

5. Sourdough bread

Carb lovers, rejoice! Some breads, i.e. sourdough breads, are made from fermented dough. Note that this does not include many of the long-life supermarket brands. You’re more likely to find these artisan breads at farmer’s markets, health stores and the like.

Follow Gebrselassie’s example

So follow the example of running great, Haile Gebrselassie, and regularly include fermented foods in your diet. Gebrselassie, despite traveling often, admits to still including injera, a fermented, iron-rich Ethiopian pancake, in his diet on a regular basis. And while eating a diet rich in fermented foods may not turn you into a world record holder overnight, it may just give you the health- and immunity boost you’re looking for.

Sources

  1. Jo Lewin, The health benefits of fermenting, Online publication, Sep 28, 2017
  2. Arti Patel, Fermented Food Benefits: 9 Reasons To Add Them To Your Diet, Online publication, Jul 17, 2015
  3. Competitor.com Staff, Gebrselassie Shares Secrets Of His Success, Online publication, Oct 23, 2013
  4. Allie Burdick, A Scientist Advises On Why Gut Health Is Vital For Runners, Online publication, Feb 22, 2018
  5. Matthew Kadey, RD, 6 Probiotic Foods for Runners, Online publication, Sep 01, 2016
  6. Amy Fleming, Is your gut microbiome the key to health and happiness?, Online publication, Nov 06, 2017
  7. R. Jayabalan et al., A Review on Kombucha Tea—Microbiology, Composition, Fermentation, Beneficial Effects, Toxicity, and Tea Fungus, Scientific journal, Jun 21, 2014
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