Fermented foods have long been a part of people's diets all across the world. Fermentation was used to preserve and enhance the flavor of food long before freezers and contemporary food preservation techniques.
As a dietitian who works with breast and ovarian cancer survivors, I'm well aware of how medical treatments can disrupt gut health. Eating more fermented foods is one strategy to improve gut health when active treatments end.
Kimchi is a top fermented food
But drinking store-bought kombucha or canned sauerkraut and pickles is a common mistake when introducing fermented foods. What is fermentation and how do you choose the best fermented foods?
Fermentation is simply the breakdown of food by helpful bacteria and/or yeast. Bacteria and yeast degrade food, releasing probiotics and enzymes that assist digestion. This method also aids in food preservation, which explains why many fermented foods have such a lengthy shelf life.
Health benefits of fermented foods
Fermented foods contain live probiotics, which can improve the immune system by increasing the production of white blood cells. This can assist the body in fighting infections and disorders. Research has shown that the probiotics in fermented foods can help support your immune system, reduce inflammation, improve digestion, regulate blood sugar levels, and even improve your mood!
Here are the details about the health benefits of fermented foods:
Probiotics (good bacteria found in fermented foods) and prebiotics (food on which probiotics feed) can both help sustain a healthy gut microbiota, which is crucial for overall health. Furthermore, probiotics can aid with digestion. These probiotics aid in the breakdown of food in the gut and the production of enzymes that aid in digestion, resulting in improved nutritional absorption.
Inflammation is reduced: Some fermented foods, such as sauerkraut and kimchi, contain anti inflammatory compounds. These substances have been shown to help reduce inflammation throughout the body, which has been connected to a variety of chronic disorders.
Improved nutrient absorption: The fermentation process can make some nutrients more accessible to the body. Lactose in milk, for example, is broken down during the fermentation process, making it easier for people to consume.
Improved mental health: Recent studies have found that there may be a link between gut health and mental health. The probiotics in fermented foods can improve gut health, which in turn can lead to improved mental health.
"...Fermented foods can affect the gut microbiome in both the short and long term, and should be considered an important element of the human diet. " (Leeuwendaal et al., 2022)
Miso adds flavor depth to many types of dishes
Top 5 fermented foods
Here are 5 best fermented foods and their health benefits.
Kefir: Kefir is a fermented milk drink made from cow's or goat's milk. It is prepared by combining milk with kefir grains, which are a combination of yeast and bacteria. Kefir is high in probiotics and can help with digestion. It's easy to find kefir in supermarkets now. Choose unsweetened kefir and add your favorite fruits.
Sauerkraut: Sauerkraut is a fermented cabbage dish from Germany. It is produced by shredding cabbage and fermenting it with salt and occasionally other vegetables like as carrots or onions. Sauerkraut is high in fiber and vitamin C, and its probiotics can help enhance intestinal health. Only buy refrigerated sauerkraut in glass containers, as this contains active probiotics.
Kimchi is a classic Korean meal comprised of fermented cabbage and other vegetables such as radishes or carrots. It's hotter than sauerkraut and frequently contains chili flakes and garlic. Kimchi is a Korean dish.
Miso (fermented soybeans) is a traditional Japanese seasoning. Most people don't know it's a fermented food! It has a salty, savory flavor and is suitable for use in soups, sauces, and marinades. Miso is high in protein and fiber, and its probiotics can help with digestive health.
Tempeh: Tempeh is a fermented soybean cake from Indonesia. It's just pressed soybeans! It has a solid texture and a nutty, earthy flavor. Tempeh is high in protein and fiber, and its probiotics can help enhance digestive health. Soybeans are recommended for breast cancer thrivers for a healthy survivorship.
My clients have grown very creative in including fermented foods into the weekly meal plans I provide, from producing a Nutty Banana Smoothie with kefir to a Creamy Mediterranean Tempeh and a Miso Power Bowl.
Sauerkraut is a popular fermented food in many cultures
Conclusion about fermented foods
Adding in just a little bit of fermented foods every day can improve gut health. Want to start including fermented foods in your diet? Kimchi, sauerkraut, yogurt, kefir, tempeh, miso paste, kombucha, and pickles are all popular fermented foods with benefits. Most grocery stores sell fermented foods, so it's simple to pick something you like.
As a registered dietitian nutritionist who works with people experiencing cancer, I’d love to help. I offer clients support to plan, shop, and prepare more nutritious and healthy meals for yourself or your family. Here is my link to book a chat about making sure to meet your nutritional needs.