Why You Should Add These Probiotic Foods To Your Meals

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.

1 of 8

Ah yes, we'll start with the classic. A not-so-fun fact: some yogurts might not actually contain enough probiotics to make a dent, and it's hard to tell which ones have the most. One thing you can do though is look for the "live & active cultures" seal, which means the product has a "significant" amount of good bugs, per the National Yogurt Association.

Larson's take: Greek yogurt is probably your best bet. In addition to a dose of probiotics, it can also boast up to 17 grams of protein, making it a great morning treat that'll keep you moving. Larson says she also loves yogurt because it can be made savory (add a few sliced almonds) or sweet (throw in some seasonal berries and honey).
2 of 8

Kefir is a fermented milk drink. It's basically a drinkable yogurt that has even more strains of live cultures, and it's been a health food store staple for decades. But, now, thanks to the interest in fermented foods, it comes in a variety of delicious flavors that make it taste even better, Larson says.
3 of 8
Sauerkraut & Kimchi

As different as these two foods may seem, they're both varieties of fermented cabbage. What makes them different? Sauerkraut also has four grams of fiber and a third of your daily vitamin C. Kimchi is also packed with vitamin A, which is important for health skin, teeth, and more.
4 of 8

Not to be confused with tofu, tempeh is a very versatile fermented soybean cake. You can fry it in the pan, slice it for a sandwich, or crumble it up into veggie chili — it's a probiotic blank slate.

"It's tasty when marinated and can be a nice change from tofu because of the firmer texture," says Larson. "It’s great source of high quality protein, too."
5 of 8
Fermented Cheese

This is one we're definitely excited about. Of the fermented cheeses, Larson says Gouda, cheddar, Swiss, Parmesan, and blue varieties are our best bets. Yet another reason to love mac and cheese. And grilled cheese. And cheese plates that come with wine...
6 of 8

If you're like us, when you think of buttermilk you also think of baking. But you may not realize that this rich, delicious drink may also be a source of probiotic power. The key, though, is to look for cultured buttermilk, which has one of two bacteria species added to help ferment the sugar. The fermentation process also makes the milk much more acidic, so it may be too tart to drink on its own. If so, stir some into mashed potatoes or leave it in the fridge overnight with some chia seeds and fruit for a creamy breakfast pudding. However, resist the temptation to bake it into your latest batch of cupcakes — the heat will kill those friendly bacteria.
7 of 8
You probably know this savory, salty paste best in its soup form. But miso is actually surprisingly versatile. And because it's made with fermented soybeans, miso is teeming with beneficial bacteria.

So how exactly do you eat this stuff? Of course, there's the soup option. But if you want to experiment a little, try adding miso for a little saltiness in your sweet and savory dishes (like cookies or oatmeal). However, make sure you're adding it when the temperature is low (below a boil) to avoid destroying the bacteria.
8 of 8
Yogurt Dips
Maybe you want to get your probiotic yogurt dose, but you're more into solid foods for breakfast. If that's the case, delicious yogurt dips and spreads offer a new way to eat your probiotics during lunch, dinner, or snack time instead. (As with regular yogurt, make sure the label actually says "probiotic" or you won't be getting those beneficial bacteria.)

There are several pre-made varieties out there in tasty flavors (jalapeño, anyone?). But, of course, you can also get a little adventurous and make your own. Tzatziki, the Greek classic, uses garlic, cucumber, and dill. But you can add avocado or some chili and lime for extra spice. Try it with veggies for a weekend snack or sub it for sour cream to top a hearty weeknight soup. Either way, your gut will thank you.

More from Diet & Nutrition