The typical American diet often consists mainly of highly processed foods, fatty meats and few fruits or vegetables. As a result, indigestion and gastrointestinal (GI) disorders are on the rise, and nutritional deficits are the result. Adding fermented foods, especially vegetables, into your diet can significantly improve the health of your belly, boost your immune system and stave off metabolic disorders that lead to high blood pressure, insulin resistance, and weight gain.
What Does Fermented Mean?
According to the dictionary, fermentation is: “the process in which a substance breaks down into a simpler substance.” Usually some kind of agent, a microorganism like yeast or bacteria, starts the process that breaks sugar down into alcohol for instance. Through fermentation, milk becomes cheese, yogurt and kefir. Grapes become wine and cabbage becomes kimchi or sauerkraut. Fermentation has been used for centuries in almost every culture as a way of preserving food. Long before there was refrigeration or fast food restaurants, fermentation was an easy way to keep food edible for the winter months or for long journeys.
Probiotics for Healthy Digestion and Stronger Immunity
Fermenting vegetables and other foods makes them rich in probiotics. These are the intestinal flora (good bacteria) essential for healthy digestion. They feed on sugar and help break down the nutrients in the intestine, which makes it easier for our bodies to absorb them.
When the good bacteria in our gut gets out of balance it can lead to:
- Diarrhea or Constipation
- Increased risk of contracting illnesses like colds or the flu
Research has shown that obese people tend to have an imbalance in gut flora; and the immune system can become compromised when you don’t have enough healthy bacteria in your GI tract. The Journal of Nutrition has even found a link between probiotics and a decreased risk of colon cancer.
We all know that vegetables are an essential component of a healthy diet. Fermented vegetables offer additional health benefits, but are not common in many American meals. Making them a part of your diet has many health benefits, so here are a few to try. Some of them may sound odd or exotic, but don’t let that stop you from trying them.
Kimchi is a traditional Korean dish consisting of fermented cabbage. Unless you grew up in a Korean family, you might find its pungent odor and spicy tang unappetizing. It is an acquired taste, to be sure, but that doesn’t mean you can’t learn to like it and by doing so, reap great health benefits.
Other fermented vegetables that can help indigestion are:
Miso (fermented soy beans that form a base for soups and sauces)
Poi (fermented taro root)
Natto (fermented soy beans that are a traditional Japanese breakfast)
When trying these foods, be sure to look for those that are not pasteurized. Choose the high quality pickles and sauerkraut in the refrigerated section of your grocery store rather than the canned versions that may contain high fructose corn syrup, a lot of preservatives, or are high in sodium. Shopping in specialty food markets is the best way to find good miso, poi or natto.
There are other terms for fermented like “pickled” or “cultured,” so read labels carefully and be aware that some of these foods are very high in sodium. You can always ferment food at home, too. It’s actually a pretty simple process and there are dozens of recipes and “how to” articles and videos on-line to assist you.
Other Healthy Fermented Foods
Fermented vegetables are just one way to get gut-healthy probiotics into your diet for better digestion and a stronger immune system. Other foods rich in probiotics are:
Tempeh (cake made from fermented soybeans)
Introduce fermented vegetables slowly into your diet if you are not used to eating them regularly. Until they become a regular part of your diet, try adding them as a side dish or snack so you don’t overwhelm your palate. You will reap the benefits of a healthier gut and a stronger immune system.