Health & Wellness

From yogurt to kombucha, fermented foods benefit your overall health

Nutritionist Keri Glasman is founder of Nutritious Life and a member of the TODAY Tastemaker team, a select group of nationally recognized lifestyle experts. This is her first column for TODAY.com.

Your gut is one hot topic. I don’t mean the extra weight you may be carrying around your midsection. (I’ll leave that to your partner to decide its hotness!) I’m talking about what’s going on, on the inside.

We all have an ecosystem of bacteria happening in our gut. This intestinal microbiota contains both “good” and “bad” bacteria. When the balance of bacteria is tipped towards the bad, which can be due to lack of sleep, stress, certain foods or various other causes, it may affect digestive health and overall well-being.

Consuming certain probiotics can help this whole gut situation by providing a regular source of good bacteria to the intestinal tract, improving how it functions and how you feel. Research links gut health to brain health and even weight.

While taking probiotic supplements is a good idea, eating fermented foods is an even tastier way to get in those good guy probiotics.

Think the word fermented has a creepy sounding vibe to it? I hear ya. But, guess what? Kimchi, unusual vinegars and cloudy jars of vegetables at the health food store may just become your new food BFFs.

GreenArt Photography / Shutterstock / GreenArt Photogra

There are loads of benefits to eating fermented foods, so read on to get your ferment-o-phobia behind you.

Fermentation 101

Fermentation is a process that helps to preserve foods. When foods are fermented, bacteria or yeast is introduced to break sugars down into simpler molecules such as alcohols and acids. This process can be as simple as placing vegetables in a salt and water solution, though often there is a starter culture (filled with friendly microorganisms). Breaking down the food does two things: it introduces good bacteria into the food that increases nutritional value and a whole lot of flavor is released — just think of the difference between eating cabbage and sauerkraut!

Like those probiotics you may consume in supplement form, your body benefits from upping your fermented food intake especially when taking antibiotics, which may disrupt the balance of the digestive tract.

Sometimes fermented foods are labeled “cultured” or “pickled,” but they all fall under the fermentation umbrella.

A few of my favorite fermented foods in terms of health benefits are:

Kombucha

Shutterstock / GreenArt Photography
Natural kombucha fermented tea beverage healthy organic drink in vintage glass close up texture. Superfood pro biotic japanese fungus; Shutterstock ID 324031751; PO: today-food

A fermented sweet tea that can be polarizing due to the sci-fi look of it. If you dare, your gut will thank you. This fizzy drink is packed with probiotics and antioxidants.

Sauerkraut

Shutterstock / Andrey Starostin
Fermented cabbage - Sauerkraut with herbs and spices on the wood background; Shutterstock ID 356487422; PO: today-food

Similar to kimchi, it’s simply a combo of cabbage and salt. You reap the probiotic benefits while getting the antioxidants and fiber of the cabbage. Plus, it tastes dee-lish on almost anything. Because of its simplicity, sauerkraut is a great option to make yourself in your own kitchen. Your homemade batch will be even healthier since most traditionally packaged varieties lose their probiotic power after pasteurization.

Vinegar

Shutterstock / Evgeny Karandaev
Olive oil and vinegar bottles on wooden table; Shutterstock ID 361195352; PO: today-food

Vinegars add loads of flavor with almost no calories, and apple cider vinegar in particular has been linked to lowering blood sugar. Drizzle on any salad.

Pickles

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Preserved Gherkins (on wooden background) as detailed close-up shot; Shutterstock ID 360489134; PO: today-food

Who doesn’t love a good pickle? This crunchy addition to any sandwich is made from vinegar, salt and cucumbers —and often creative seasonings. This is another one to try at home since many packaged options lose probiotic properties due to high heat processing.

Kefir

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Thick white product on a wooden surface in a rustic style. Selective focus.; Shutterstock ID 340959005; PO: today-food

Essentially a more powerful (and drinkable) form of yogurt, kefir has more probiotics than yogurt. It also contains B vitamins, magnesium, calcium and protein and works excellent as the base of dressings or a smoothie.

RELATED: This super food can help tummy troubles; here are tasty ways for you to try it

Kimchi

norikko / Shutterstock / norikko
Dishes prepared with medicinal herbs hot pot Chinese food which appears of the steam; Shutterstock ID 348464033; PO: today-food

A Korean favorite, kimchi is made from cabbage and other veggies, with a bit of salt and other spices added. Kimchi is loaded with vitamins A and C, minerals such as magnesium, calcium and selenium and, of course, probiotics.

Tempeh

Shutterstock / SirChopin
Raw Tempeh; Shutterstock ID 246624742; PO: today-food

Fermented soybeans make this vegetarian source of protein also a good source of probiotics.

Among other healthy habits I recommend for a healthy gut — reducing stress, exercising, eating whole real foods with adequate fiber —I advise all of my clients to add a serving of fermented foods daily.

Introduce them slowly so as not to overwhelm your system.

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