YaQutullah Ibraheem Muhammad MS, RDN, LD
Many of us have heard of probiotics and their associated health benefits, but what are prebiotics? Prebiotics are elements contained in certain foods that help feed and nourish the growth or activity of beneficial microorganisms such as bacteria, yeast, and fungi. They are the non-digestible carbohydrate components of foods, such as inulin from chicory root. Prebiotics are often used as ingredients in functional foods, conventional, or modified foods that provide an added benefit beyond basic nutrition.
Prebiotic fibers are not digested, rather they ferment in the colon. This fermentation process feeds beneficial bacteria colonies (including probiotic bacteria). It helps to increase the number of desirable bacteria in our gastrointestinal (GI) systems (also known as the gut), which may help to improve GI health and reduced the risk of disease. (www.ecronicon.com)
Consistently including prebiotics can help boost your overall health because prebiotics contain anti-inflammatory properties and can assist with reducing chronic systemic inflammation in the body, which in turn reduces the risk for heart disease. Additional health benefits include improved calcium absorption and decreased allergy risk.
Prebiotics aren’t hard to find and there’s a good chance that you are already eating them. They are contained in high-fiber foods, including fruit, vegetables, whole grains, onions, garlic, legumes (beans, chickpeas, lentils, and soybeans), nuts (cashews and pistachios), Jerusalem artichoke, and chicory root. Many of us consume prebiotics from grains such as breads, cereals, and pastas. Eating a balanced nutrient-dense diet will ensure that you get the prebiotics that you need and help to improve overall gut health. “Lentil soup, hummus, dried fruits, nuts, and seeds provide a source of prebiotics and are popular snack ideas considered staples during Ramadan,” says Registered Dietitian Nutritionist Hiba Hamadeh, MMedSci, RDN, LD.
The body is an ecosystem and needs to remain in balance. Including prebiotics consistently as part of your regular gut health regime can help to restore balance after a bout of diarrhea or a yeast infection and can also ward off harmful bacteria in the gut and improve immune system defense. Consistent consumption of prebiotics can also positively impact your lipid levels by lowering total blood cholesterol and triglyceride levels. Certain prebiotic fibers can increase your feeling of fullness or ‘satiety’ and thus help with healthy weight management.
Prebiotic sources are also available in supplement form, including powders, tablets, and capsules. They are beneficial for those who may not be able to tolerate natural food sources or have limited time to buy and prepare foods. Prebiotic powders can be added to cereals, smoothies, and other beverages. The powders can easily boost your daily intake. A common supplemental prebiotic is the inulin from chicory root. Inulin is used as a food additive commonly added to snacks, high-fiber granola bars, cereals, and other foods to increase fiber content as well as flavor. In identifying supplement options, there are certain terms identifying the prebiotics contained in the product. Commonly consumed prebiotics include:
Fructans (inulin and fructooligosaccharides)
In choosing a supplement, there are a few things to consider. The National Institutes of Health (NIH) recommends looking for a Supplement Facts label that will contain essential information including the amount of fiber per serving, and other added ingredients including fillers, binders, and flavorings. Also, be sure that the supplement chosen is a high-quality supplement from a reputable company that adheres to good manufacturing practices (GMP) to help ensure and maintain optimal quality and purity. Look for a product that contains a seal of approval from a third-party organization that provides quality independent testing. A few organizations include U.S. Pharmacopeia, ConsumerLab.com, and NSF International. A seal of approval from one of these organizations provides assurance that the product was properly manufactured, contains the ingredients listed on the label, and does not contain harmful levels of contaminants. (verywellhealth.com) If you have questions, you can also call the customer service number on the product with questions and to obtain more information.
Prebiotics can be consumed in either food or supplement form and most people will get enough prebiotics by setting a goal to consume the recommended daily intake for fiber, which is 25 grams for females and 38 grams for males. Many prebiotic supplements provide a dose of between 4 and 5 grams per day. Commonly, people will also consume a combination of both prebiotic and probiotic sources resulting in “symbiotic therapy” in order to maximize the overall benefit.
“IFANCA certifies many products under dietary or nutritional supplements that contain prebiotics. Look for products manufactured by Abbott, 4Life Research, and other companies,” says food scientist Saeed Hayek, PhD. He further states, “Prebiotics are safe, there is no risk from [an] overdose. These are natural oligosaccharide fibers that have no legal or health limitations.”
There are some cases where abdominal discomfort, bloating, and gas can result as your digestive system adjusts to increased intake. If you suffer from irritable bowel syndrome or another gastrointestinal disorder, be sure to consult with your healthcare provider and Registered Dietitian Nutritionist to develop a personalized plan for including prebiotics in your meal planning.
YaQutullah Ibraheem Muhammad is an Atlanta based Registered Dietitian Nutritionist and owner of Nutrition Prescriptions, LLC, a consulting practice specializing in weight management, recipe development and analysis, nutrition education. She empowers women to learn and apply healthy, mindful nutrition strategies while understanding the connection between food, faith, and health. Find her on Instagram @yaqutu_nutritionprescriptions.