Does your mouth pucker and your nose turn up just at the thought of eating sauerkraut or dill pickles? The Standard American diet in general has turned away from eating these more bitter foods in favor of a diet rich in sweet flavors. But maybe we need to start thinking about adding in more fermented foods to our diet and limiting our consumption of sugary foods. Here’s why.
I was invited recently to lead off the Fermentation Series at the Morton Arboretum and presented my workshop on making non-dairy yogurts. In the process of preparing for this presentation, I researched the benefits of lacto-fermented foods. I thought I knew fermented foods, but the more I read, the more I realized fermented foods do much more than just add a bit of “tang” to tickle our taste buds!
Did you know fermented foods can help regulate our weight, keep us healthy, and even keep us happy?
Let’s take a quick look at how fermented foods are made and how they benefit our health.
Lacto-fermented foods are formed when beneficial bacteria in foods are allowed to grow. These microbes feed on the food’s natural sugars and starches, breaking them down into lactic acids, and making them easier for us to digest. This process not only preserves the food, but creates beneficial enzymes and vitamins as well.
But that’s not all.
After we eat a fermented food, some of its beneficial microbes are preserved in our digestive system; some even set up residence inside our gut and continue to replicate. Once in our gut, these microbes continue to feed on food particles, breaking them down into smaller compounds that our body is then able to readily absorb. Without the support of these microbes, we wouldn’t be able to extract all the nutrients from some foods. They would pass through our digestive tract unabsorbed!
But these microbes do much more than just help us digest our food.
The microbiome (the collective name given to the different colonies of microbes in our intestines) can actually affect how our genes are expressed, and influence our hormones. They make vitamins, and influence how our body reacts to different foods. They can even cause us to crave certain foods, and affect our moods!
It is estimated that there are more bacteria in our microbiome than cells in our body. The microbiome is the name given to all the microbes that live in and on our body. Our body contains about 30 trillion cells. It is estimated that there are 40 trillion microbes making up our microbiome, weighing approximately 3 pounds, or about as much as an average adult brain! 1 That’s a lot of cells!
But, it turns out, not all of these bacteria may be good for us. Some can be pathogenic, causing serious digestion problems such as diarrhea, bloating, and gas. 2 They can weaken our immune system and make us susceptible to disease. If this number of harmful bacteria begins to outnumber the beneficial, dysbiosis occurs and we get sick. Dysbiosis has been attributed to acne, rosacea, allergies, bad breath, gum disease, fatigue, and weight gain, among other symptoms. 3
In order to restore health after dysbiosis occurs, the bad bacteria (pathogens) need to be killed off, and beneficial bacteria (probiotics) encouraged to flourish!
How to Create a Healthy MicrobiomeIn order to reestablish a healthy microbiome, we need to eliminate the food sources for the harmful bacteria. They like to feed on sugars and simple carbohydrates that are typically found in processed foods. These are the very same foods that make up a large part of the Standard American Diet! But, like any organism, these bacteria want to survive, and have mechanisms to ensure their survival. Studies have shown that these harmful bacteria can produce compounds that influence the foods preferences of their host. 4 In this case the pathogens affect hunger, causing us to crave more sugar to feed them!
In addition to a poor diet, there are other factors that might need to be addressed. The use of antibiotics, excessive alcohol consumption and NSAIDs are some examples. Sometimes, these bacteria are so well established that other supplements might needed to assist in killing them off and eliminating them from the body. Consulting a holistic health professional is recommended in such cases.
Once the favorable conditions for dysbiosis are eliminated, beneficial bacteria can be added back into the digestive tract. This can be done by taking probiotics in pill form or consuming foods that are rich in probiotics and fiber, i.e. fermented foods! Fermented foods not only provide the bacteria needed for a healthy microbiome, but they also contain fiber that feeds these bacteria and help them proliferate. Green leafy vegetables is also a good food source.
There are many different types of fermented foods from which to chooseHopefully, by now you understand the importance of consuming a balanced diet that is low in added sugars and processed foods, high in green leafy vegetables, and contains some fermented foods! It’s no wonder that every culture in the world has its own version of fermented foods.
There are many types of fermented foods to choose from, and just like anything else, variety is important. Every food contains its own special combination of probiotic microbes. Some of these microbes are naturally found on the food. This usually occurs with lacto-fermented vegetables such as sauerkraut, kimchi, or dill pickles.
Don’t just limit yourself to these foods.
Most vegetables can be fermented and are very easy to make. Try for instance, lacto-fermented carrots, onions, green beans, or beets. Or if you are more adventurous, you can try fermenting your own applesauce, tomato salsa, or ketchup!
I just made my first batch of ketchup and waiting to see how it turns out. If you are interested in learning how to make fermented foods, feel free to contact me. I just sent out a recipe for home-made sauerkraut in a recent newsletter. I can send it out to you!
Other fermented foods require that you add a specific culture in order to make it. The culture is a mixture or powder that contains very specific bacterial strains. When introduced to a food under favorable conditions, these strains will grow and produce the distinctive tangy flavor associated with that food. Some good examples of these are yogurt, kefir, or kombucha.
Pace YourselfWhen changing or adding something new to your diet, it is always good to begin slowly. The same is true for adding fermented foods to your diet. Too much at once can lead to gas, bloating, and stomach distress, the very things that you are trying to avoid. For that reason, start slowly, adding a tablespoon as a side dish to your meal. Just adding one or two tablespoons to every meal may be enough to keep your microbiome in balance.
Here are a couple of suggestions to help you add fermented foods to your diet!
- Add yogurt, kefir or buttermilk to your morning smoothies.
- Top granola or oatmeal with fruit and homemade yogurt.
- Top your scrambled eggs with fermented salsa.
- Add chopped fermented pickles to tuna, salmon, or ham salad.
- Have a small side dish of raw sauerkraut or other fermented veggie with dinner.
- Mix in some shredded fermented veggies into your salad. It adds a nice tang and you can cut back on the amount of vinegar and salt you add to your dressing.
- Eat a dill pickle or fermented carrot spear from the jar for a snack! I find that having a salty, tangy food will sometimes eliminate a craving for a sugary treat!
Fermented Food RecipesI have several recipes for sauerkraut, other fermented veggies and salsas, and non-dairy yogurt. Contact me and I'd be happy to send you some!
Do you eat fermented foods? I would love to hear how you prepare it!
Yours in Health,