What if I told you that adding one new food group to your diet could help regulate your digestive system, balance your mood and hormonal responses, and improve your immune system in one fell swoop? Does it sound too good to be true?
Well, it’s real. Fermented foods might just be the addition to your diet that you’ve been missing all this time. With myriad health benefits, fermented foods can improve your health and lifestyle within a few weeks of incorporating these bacteria-rich products into your diet.
The fermentation process preserves beneficial nutrients that are otherwise broken down when vegetables are cooked while simultaneously ridding foods of harmful compounds. Whether through yeast or bacteria, the fermentation process produces chemicals called short-chain amino acids, which help improve and protect our immune systems. Lactobacillus is a bacteria that converts sugar into acid, acting as a preservative for food. That’s why you can have pickles in your fridge for a long time without them going bad. Lactobacillus, it turns out, also acts as an aid in creating prime conditions in our gut for healthy and diverse bacteria to flourish.
When we eat fermented foods, the bacteria and enzymes that appear during the preservation process go to work in our bowels. These preserved foods must be combined with “pre-biotic” foods, like whole foods consumed raw, which provide the live bacteria for our gut bacteria to break down. The gut is a powerful part of our bodies and must be nurtured with a diverse diet. It’s in control of more than just our digestion and has shown to affect our brains.
Probiotics can be taken in supplement form, but our bodies are evolved to absorb nutrients best through eating whole foods. So while there is nothing wrong with probiotic supplements, your body will get more out of eating fermented foods and drinking fermented beverages.
Depending on your dietary needs and interests, you can find probiotics in all kinds of foods. For example, if you’re a yogurt fan, look for brands that have probiotic listed in on the label. If you’re a vegan, you’ll enjoy pickles and sauerkraut. For those of you who like craft beer, good news! Though some large beer companies skip some steps in the fermentation process, most beers are fermented and offer some of the above health benefits (just don’t go overboard or think of it as “healthy”). If you’re on the go, kefir and kombucha are great ways to drink your gut-friendly probiotics.
If you’d like to try your hand at fermenting your own foods, try baking your own bread first! I love this recipe for no-knead bread that comes out with a crispy crust. It’s fascinating to see the dough bubble and rise – it’s those microbes going to work! If you enjoyed that, then try making kimchi. Here’s a recipe I’ve enjoyed making. It has a little kick to it! I like to re-use large glass jars as containers for our kimchi, normally from pasta sauce. And if you’re really hooked after that, try some sauerkraut. It’s great on sausages and just as a side dish!
Cultures around the globe have been consuming fermented fares for centuries, if not millennia. People in Germany and ancient Egypt brewed beer, Koreans made kimchi, Japanese made miso and preserved fish and beans, Tanzanians made togwa, Chinese made douchi, and Vietnamese made mám. The list goes on and on! Links made between health and fermentation were discovered by ancient cultures, but we seem to have lost our taste for them in recent centuries. The changing food industry, especially in the “west,” has created cheap foods that are easy to make en masse. While the prices of calories may have gone down, so have their nutritional value. Lack of lactobacillus has made our bodies overall less healthy and more prone to disease. Take a leaf out of ancient civilization’s book – eat your fermented foods!
The key is to diversify your diet. So, try not to add only one of the below options. Instead, try incorporating them throughout the day in different meals.
Beer (think more along the lines of craft beer, not natty light)
Cheese (not all cheese – American slices, for example, don’t count)
Wine (one glass per night recommended)
Pickles (the closer to handmade, the better)
Yogurt (check the label to make sure it contains probiotics)
Sauerkraut (the closer to homemade, the better)
They may not be the most delicious smelling things you’ve ever whiffed, but fermented foods are your new best friends. Eventually your gut will start to crave them and making them yourself will connect you with your ancestors, no matter where your families are from.