Jars of fermented foods for gut health

Why You Need to Add Fermented Foods to Your Diet

I’m a nutritionist, so it’s no surprise that many of my conversations with my patients revolve around food. And often, here’s how these conversations go.

I say, “Eat healthy proteins, healthy fats, and lots of veggies,” and my patients nod cheerfully.

I say, “Nuts and berries are good,” and they smile at me.

Then I say, “Be sure to add some fermented foods, like sauerkraut and kimchi.” And they look at me like I’ve just asked them to lick the bottom of the dog’s dish.

Over the years, I’ve discovered that most Americans—unlike people in Europe, Asia, Africa, and South America—shun fermented foods. They might occasionally toss a little sauerkraut on a hot dog or try a bite of kimchi at a Korean restaurant, but make these staples of their diet? No way.

That’s too bad, because eating fermented foods is one of the most powerful ways to keep your gut healthy. Here’s a look at these remarkable super-foods, and why it’s smart to develop a taste for them.

What are foods that ferment?

Fermentation occurs when bacteria feed on the natural sugars in foods. In the process, they create natural preservatives, like lactic acid. The bacteria also partially “predigest” the foods, making their nutrients more available.

Most important of all, the bacteria in fermented foods hitch a ride right into your gut, happily becoming part of your interior ecosystem. So each time you eat fermented foods, you’re replenishing your gut’s population.

Why are fermented foods good for you?

In short, fermented food is good gut bacteria help keep you slim, healthy, vibrant, attractive, and happy. So you definitely don’t want to run short on them!

Unfortunately, modern life isn’t kind to your gut flora. Stress, sleeplessness, a sugary or high-carb diet, or medications (for instance, antibiotics, NSAIDS, and antacids) can cause your good gut bacteria to dwindle. That’s when fermented foods can save the day.

Of course, it’s true that you can get beneficial microbes from probiotics as well—and I often prescribe probiotics to my patients. But the absolutely best way to make sure you’re getting a good mix of the right bugs is to get them the most natural way: in food.

Tips for getting the most from fermented foods for gut health

When you’re shopping for fermented foods, keep this in mind: You want healthy, vibrant microbes. So if you’re buying sauerkraut or kimchi, choose packages in the refrigerated section of the store. Check the label and make sure the product isn’t pasteurized, which kills off the bacteria.

Better yet, consider making your own fermented foods at home. Here’s my favorite recipe for kimchi; if you try it, make sure to let it sit overnight (or at least for several hours) so the good microbes can multiply. If you’re feeling more ambitious, PaleoLeap has a great article here about making your own sauerkraut and other fermented veggies. Also, check out this recipe for cortido, a Latin American version of sauerkraut.

What are foods that ferment for gut health?

There are many foods that ferment such as vegetables, so consider experimenting with everything from cauliflower to red peppers. Just make sure you start out with clean veggies, clean hands, and clean equipment, and that you always use clean utensils to dip into your fermenting foods. You’ll find more tips here for fermenting food safely.

How much fermented food should you eat? 

No matter which route you choose—store-bought or home-made—try to eat at least a quarter of a cup of fermented foods a minimum of two or three times a week. I’m betting that even if you’re saying “ick” right now, you’ll quickly develop a taste for them. After, the billions of people on the planet who adore these foods can’t all be wrong!

Check out my recipe for kimchi

Keep Thinking Big & Living Bold!

Dr. Kellyann