Build Better Bacteria With Prebiotics

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Not all bacteria are created equal. Some are better for your health than others, and making your gut into an appealing home for the “right” kind is a fast, effective way to improve everything from body fat levels to migraines. So how do you do it? Probiotics – like the ones in those “healthy” miniature yoghurts – can top up the good ones, but prebiotics (technically, non-digestible plant fibres) act like fertiliser for the ones that are already there, giving them the environment they need to thrive. You already get some prebiotics from your diet – even sliced white bread has them – but topping up with these ten foods can lead to radical changes in your gut microbiome, meaning results in days, not months.

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Nuts

Most are good but in a 2014 study, almonds and pistachios had a noticeable effect on beneficial bacteria, the latter also offering lots of protein and healthy fat. Eat them raw or crumble them over salad. If you’re an almond fan, eat them unprocessed – the skin has fibre that helps improve your gut’s levels of good bifidobacteria and lactobacilli.

Dandelion Greens

They’re full of vitamins K and A, calcium and iron, as well as inulin, a fibre that helps fight unfriendly bacteria. Blanch them for 20 seconds, then add them to stews, casseroles or salads. If you can’t get them, spinach contains molecules that feed good bacteria in the intestine, providing a protective barrier against the bad ones.

Leek

High in vitamins K and C, but also almost 12% fibre by weight – if you eat them uncooked. They’re technically a sweeter variety of onion, so you can use them the same way – chop them raw and throw them into salad or use them as a garnish. There’s also evidence from the American Journal Of Clinical Nutrition that they aid calcium absorption.

Jerusalem Artichoke

Not to be confused with artichokes – it’s a relative of the sunflower (the name is from the Italian for sunflower, girasole) that looks like ginger by the time it gets to the supermarket. They’re one-third fibre by weight, which is ideal for gut health and satiety. You can sauté or roast them, but raw is better for prebiotic content – slice them thin to go with salad.

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Red Onion

Not just a prebiotic – it’s a source of oligofructose, which helped regulation of hunger hormone ghrelin in a Canadian study – but also packed with chromium, which helps regulate insulin production. Eat it raw to keep the sulphur compounds intact – even a sliver in your burger does you good – and remember there’s more goodness in the outer layers.

Garlic

It’s packed with manganese, vitamin B6 and selenium, and there’s some evidence that it has anti-cancer effects – but its antimicrobial properties help maintain a healthy microbiome profile by hurting clostridium while leaving lactobacilli alone. For prebiotic power, it’s better raw – blend it with chickpeas, tahini and lemon juice to make hummus.

Asparagus

Packed with B vitamins potassium and inulin (which is also available from coffee-substitute chicory root) but also with around 5% fibre by weight, uncooked. It’s not easy to eat raw, but the less you cook it the more fibre and prebiotic content it retains. For taste and health, part-fry it in a saucepan, then toss in a sprinkle of water and steam it the rest of the way.

Cabbage

Forget the drooping boiled version: eating it fermented as sauerkraut or kimchi keeps its fibre intact and, according to some studies, allows its bacteria to thrive and multiply, making it more gut-beneficial than the raw variety. Just slice it up, squeeze some salt in, then submerge it in salt water and seal it in a jar. Fermentation takes up to ten days – look out for mould.

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Broccoli

It already makes a cancer-fighting agent called sulforaphane, but when cooked alongside other prebiotic foods its effects are enhanced, according to research from the University of Illinois. To eat it raw and take advantage of its full effects, toss it in a bowl with yogurt, sunflower seeds and lemon juice, then let it sit for a couple of hours before eating.

Banana

A source of fructo-oligosaccharides, a type of fructose-molecule cluster that feeds obesity-fighting bacteria. Underripe ones have more resistant starch, making them a better source of prebiotics, so snack on them or mash a small one with 100ml of egg white, a scoop of whey protein powder and 1tsp flaxseed to make protein pancakes.