Exercise 3–5 times per week? Check. Log enough hours of sleep each night? Double check. Eat a serving of fermented foods? Probably not.
While most of us pay attention to the first two items on my checklist to stay healthy, how many of us even know what a fermented food is? It doesn’t even sound like it’s safe to eat let alone healthy.
Fermented foods are a fairly new trend—even to someone like me who’s been in the nutrition world for years. Aside from sauerkraut, pickles, and probiotic-packed yogurts, we don’t have much experience eating fermented foods here in the states.
But here’s the thing: fermented foods have been a staple in diets all across the world for centuries.
And if we’ve learned anything about what the healthiest countries eat, we might take a cue from those who already know about fermented food’s incredible health benefits, all of which we’ll discuss today.
What makes a food fermented?
One of the reasons many people shy away from fermented foods is because they’re not exactly sure what fermentation entails, so let’s break it down.
The process of fermentation is defined as: “the chemical breakdown of a substance by bacteria, yeasts, or other microorganisms.”
You may have heard the term fermentation as it relates to beer, liquor, and even wine. In these cases, starches like sugar and carbohydrates are converted to ethyl alcohol to produce the alcohol that we drink.
But when it comes to food, this process (lactic acid fermentation) involves healthy bacteria.
In my experience, people hear the word bacteria—even if it’s healthy bacteria—and they run for the hills. We’ll get into this more in our next section.
Here’s what you need to know before you shoot the idea down completely.
Essentially, through a microbial process officially called lacto-fermentation, raw foods are converted into easily digestible, fermented versions. These upgraded foods are packed with nutrients, enzymes, healthy probiotics, and even omega-3 fatty acids in some cases.
Because of this, when you consume fermented foods, you’re getting an incredible amount of nutrients that are easily absorbed and subsequently utilized by your body.
This is exactly why fermented foods should be a must-have in any healthy diet.
Let’s take a look at a few of these amazing health benefits in detail.
What can fermented foods do for your health?
Balance Good Bacteria
While the idea of having bacteria living in our guts turns some people off, it’s a totally natural process. And it’s one that can easily become out of balance.
When this happens, you’re likely to experience digestive upsets such as:
- Excess gas
- Chronic diarrhea
- Bad breath
To prevent these common and uncomfortable issues, you must make an effort to balance both the good and bad bacteria in your gut. Fermented foods can help you do just that.
Put simply, the fermented foods act like little soldiers in your gut. As beneficial bacteria, they come in and restore the proper bacterial balance by ensuring that the bad ones don’t overpopulate the good guys.
Stabilize Stomach Acid Levels
Fermented foods also restore the balance of your stomach acid in the same way they balance your good bacteria.
See, our stomachs naturally produce hydrochloric acid anytime we eat or drink something. This is what starts the process of digestion. It’s also what’s used to actually break down the food in our systems.
Unfortunately, factors such as poor food choices and stress can cause you to produce too little or too much stomach acid. When this occurs, you’ll experience heartburn, indigestion, and if you have too much acid, acid reflux.
For those with stomach acid amounts that are too low, you’ll face:
- Dry skin
- Rectal itching
- Chronic fatigue
But if you’re eating fermented foods, you can rest easy. These guys enter the body and give it exactly what it needs.
So if your stomach acids are too low, fermented foods can help increase the production of hydrochloric acid, and vice versa if you’re producing too much acid.
Plus, since we naturally produce less digestive enzymes as we age, most of us could really use the added boost that fermented foods provide. Otherwise, you may not properly digest foods and those pesky symptoms I mentioned above will become almost inevitable.
Helps Your Body Absorb Nutrients & Boosts Your Immune System
According to an article presented in Tufts University’s School of Nutrition Science: “The bacteria [found in fermented foods] ‘predigest’ certain food components, making them easier for your gut to handle and for nutrients to be absorbed when you eat them.”
Because of this, you’re body holds on to and uses these essential nutrients as needed. In some instances, such as with kimchi and sauerkraut, your body uses these nutrients to ward of cancer.
On top of that, since you’re absorbing these nutrients better, you’re also strengthening your immune system along the way. And since 80% of your immune system resides in your digestive system, this is an excellent place to start.
Combat Obesity and Type-2 Diabetes
A recent study conducted in Denmark shed light on remarkable differences in the stomachs of diabetics and non-diabetics. Specifically, they noticed a difference in the amount of microflora, or bacteria, in the guts of healthy participants and those with type-2 diabetes.
This correlates with earlier studies linking differences in gut flora with obesity. In those studies, when obese participants lost weight, their gut flora reverted back to what’s normally seen in healthy, non-obese participants.
To combat both metabolic issues, diabetics and non-diabetics alike can benefit from adding healthy fermented foods to their diets.
While more research is still needed to confirm these, some doctors and nutritionists also believe that fermented foods can help with other issues such as:
- Skin issues
- Hormonal imbalances
- Brain fog
6 Fermented Foods to Add to Your Healthy Diet Starting Today
1. Fermented veggies
Instead of buying pickles loaded with high levels of sodium, make your own fermented veggies.
If you can, opt for organic choices such as cabbage, carrots, radishes, and beets. Or spice things up by using jalapenos or hot peppers. Red peppers also work well fermented.
To give your veggies an added burst of flavor, throw in some fresh herbs, garlic, or even ginger. Of course, you’ll want to use these sparingly since a little bit goes a long way.
If you’re strapped for time, you can also find healthier fermented options at a natural food market. Just keep an eye on the sodium content and the ingredients used and you’ll be okay.
Kefir is a creamy, yogurt-like drink that’s also been around for ages but is only now gaining popularity in the US.
You can purchase premade kefir in the yogurt section of your grocery store—just watch out for brands with too much sugar in them. Try your hand at making a healthier version at home using any type of milk you prefer.
Kimchi is a Korean condiment made of pickled cabbages. It’s also typically on the spicier side of the fermented food spectrum.
According to Health, the cabbage is mixed with “garlic, salt, vinegar, chile, peppers and other spices– [and] is served at every meal, either alone or mixed with rice or noodles.”
That same article mentions that Kimchi is high in fiber and low in fat which explains why it has remained so popular in Korea as a natural way to fight weight gain. I’m all for it!
Kombucha is a fermented beverage that’s also gaining a loyal following in the health food world. Unlike Kefir, kombucha is more like a cold tea than a drinkable yogurt.
But this tea has a bit of a kick to it as far as flavor goes. And I’m not talking about a spicy kick like kimchi. Kombucha has more of a vinegar taste that’s slightly carbonated and naturally fizzy.
You can learn how to brew a batch yourself or purchase premade ones at organic markets such as Whole Foods.
Be warned: It may take some time getting used to the taste. I hated it at first and now I can’t get enough.
Sauerkraut and yogurt are two of the easiest and most readily available fermented food options on our list. You can make your own sauerkraut or purchase premade ones at any grocery store.
Sauerkraut is essentially a pickled cabbage like Kimchi, minus all the heat from the spices.
Now, instead of using your healthy sauerkraut on a high sodium sausage or hot dog, add it to your soups, sandwiches, or casseroles for an added flavor (and health) boost.
Some yogurts contain a healthy dose of probiotics. To see how your brand stacks up, check the label.
If you see phrases such as “live active cultures” or your brand specifically lists the strains of bacteria in there, you’re good to go. Otherwise, your yogurt may not be packed with these gut promoting benefits.
Keep in mind that some yogurts can be extremely high in sugar due to their added flavors. So it’s best to pay attention to the probiotic count along with the sugar and calorie numbers.
Now that you know the health benefits of fermented foods, your homework is to start adding them gradually to your diet.
If you’re limited on time, reach for the drinkable options like kefir and kombucha. Yogurts are also great for portable, on-the-go snacking. And if you’re someone who enjoys cooking, start experimenting with veggies and create your own versions of kimchi and sauerkraut.
Your gut will certainly thank you for the contribution of healthy bacteria by boosting your good health.