What’s the Deal With Fermented Foods?
Lately, an increasing number of our clients have asked us whether fermented foods--foods that have undergone fermentation, or a chemical breakdown spurred by bacteria, yeast or other microorganisms--are worth the hype. Fermented foods include buzzworthy edibles like kombucha, kefir, and kimchi, as well as items you're probably already eating, such as tempeh, pickled fruits and veggies, sour cream, cheese, soy sauce, cider, vinegar, yogurt, and even beer and wine. Originally, mostly “raw diet” devotees were interested in fermentation, but a number of popular books and articles brought these foods into the mainstream with claims that they stimulate the immune system, prevent cancer, and improve liver function.
Although, scientific evidence doesn't yet support claims that fermented foods have miraculous healing powers, the probiotics they contain do benefit health. Fermented foods provide friendly bacteria, known as probiotics, that your body needs in order to crowd out the harmful bacteria naturally occurring in your digestive tract. Probiotics may improve your digestive and immune health, and prevent certain digestive woes and accompanying diarrhea. Thanks to the probiotics that “pre-digest” your food for you, fermented foods also help you absorb more nutrients. For example, if you’re eating fermented cabbage, also known as sauerkraut (when you add Russian, Polish, or Yiddish seasonings) or kimchi (when you add Korean seasonings), the probiotics in the cabbage are hard at work breaking down the plant cell walls so you can absorb more vitamin C from the cabbage to boost your immunity while improving your skin. (Related: What 'All-Natural' Means on Food Labels)
That being said, we don’t tell our clients to force themselves to eat fermented foods if they don’t like them. Personally, we enjoy eating yogurt and it’s an easy way to get some probiotics. And many of our clients go for kefir. While yogurt is fermented with only lactobacillus bacteria, kefir is fermented with this and also with yeasts so it has additional probiotics. Although we like the flavored kefir, we prefer not to get all of the extra calories from the sweeteners. As for store-bought kombucha, just don't go crazy. Many packaged products are high in sugar (about 8 g in an 8 oz serving) and contain about 60 calories. We typically suggest avoiding beverages that contain calories to help prevent excess calorie consumption. Another drawback: in order to keep the probiotic benefits, the kombucha tea must not be pasteurized, which increases the risk of contamination.
Bottom line: If the majority of your diet is healthy, and you prefer to get your probiotics from a supplement instead of with fermented foods, go right ahead.
—Tammy Lakatos Shames and Elysse “Lyssie” Lakatos—otherwise known as the Nutrition Twins—are registered dietitians, certified personal trainers and authors of Fire Up Your Metabolism: 9 Proven Principles for Burning Fat and Losing Weight Forever. They will be blogging about nutrition and weight loss for Fitbie every week.
Got a question for the Nutrition Twins? Nutrition Twins will take over Fitbie's Facebook page on Thursday, September 20 from 2-3PM to answer your diet and nutrition questions!
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