Eating foods covered in bacteria may sound gross at first — and certainly, chowing down on foods contaminated with say, E. coli can be dangerous — but as we're learning more and more, there is such a thing as good bugs, too.
In fact, you may have heard that your gut is already teeming with trillions of microbes, encompassing at least 1,000 different species, that aid in digestion, help boost your immune system, and possibly even regulate your mood. Known as probiotics, eating these various strains of "good" bacteria and yeasts found in fermented foods like yogurt (a probiotic classic) may help boost the diversity of your own personal bug garden in your gut, which in turn, may improve your health, especially in relation to certain digestive issues.
What's more exciting is that probiotics have also been linked to helping other health issues as well. For instance, in one paper, published last year in Psychiatry Research, scientists found that participants who ate more fermented foods were less likely to have social anxiety. Another study found that people who took probiotic supplements were less likely to ruminate on bad feelings, a tendency associated with both anxiety and depression.
Though many questions remain about which strains of live cultures (and at what dosage) are effective, the benefits of eating probiotic foods are promising. Plus, as Kim Larson, RDN, explains, many of them come packed with fiber, protein, and other useful nutrients. (They also have the added quality of being delicious.)
In other words, science has yet to work out all the details, but even if these foods don't solve your anxiety, they're worth adding to your diet — with "food" being the key word here, Larson says. Although you can get probiotic supplements, Larson doesn't recommend it because you don't always know that the bacteria will survive the trip through your stomach to your intestines — or even the trip home from the drugstore. "It’s very likely the number of bacteria have diminished from production to your taking them," she explains. "Save your money and buy real, whole food to get the live cultures."
Confusing things further is the fact that many companies have caught on to the potential in probiotics, with the result being lots of new foods lining the shelves touting health benefits without really measuring up. For example, one trendy probiotic food you won't find on this list: "Kombucha doesn’t make my list because of the food safety hazard issues," says Larson. "If it’s not handled properly — made commercially or at home — the bacterial culture can become contaminated."
Keep reading for a list of good gut foods that are worth the space on your plate.