This article is not meant to diagnose or provide medical advice—that responsibility lies with physicians.
Everyone knows about the importance of probiotics, and many of us make attempts to get them into our diets by consuming probiotic-rich foods such as kimchi, yogurt or kombucha. However, too few realize that probiotics need to be fed in order to survive and thrive.
Prebiotic foods are ones that contain the insoluble fiber that probiotics eat, thus enabling them to continue living. Similar to probiotics, prebiotics have now been proven to help regulate cortisol and emotional response. Including prebiotic foods in your diet means you don’t need to eat so many probiotic ones, because you can keep the helpful colonization alive with less work.
Probiotics are bacteria, therefore they don’t have a typical “life span.” They duplicate their DNA for colonization. However, they only have the ability to do that for 1-4 weeks after consumption, at which point you couldn’t find/detect the exact original bacteria in your body anymore. If you can help them colonize, by consuming prebiotics, for example, that’s great. If you take probiotics and they then just “die”—not so great. The more you can help them along in colonizing with good bacteria, the better off your internal biome will be.
What foods contain prebiotics? Chances are, you’re probably already eating some of them! Common items like bananas, onions, garlic, seaweed, asparagus, oats, apples, cocoa, flax seeds and wheat bran all contain prebiotic fiber. If those are already part of your day to day, that’s great, and if not, you might want to consider adding them in since they are all easily accessible and possess an assortment of health benefits.
In addition to the above, there are some foods that contain an even higher amount of prebiotic fiber. The less mainstream foods below offer solid amounts of insoluble fiber, and since you might not be familiar with them, they’re paired with suggestions for how to most easily and most tastefully eat them.
Containing a whopping 33 percent fiber for the unpeeled version, and 23 percent fiber when peeled, tiger nuts (pictured at top) are actually dried little tubers, not nuts at all. They are sweet without anything being added to them, and fit in well in trail mixes. If you find the texture a bit difficult (which wouldn’t be a shock as they are very chewy), soak them in water for an hour or two first. That will soften them to perfection.
A thickening flour made by powdering green bananas, banana flour has only been commercially available in recent years. The troublesome part about finding recipes for it lies in the fact that although the resistant starch is only effective when the flour is raw, most recipes call for it to be used in baking. If you cook banana flour, its starch loses its benefits, and since it already doesn’t have the luscious texture of wheat flour, there isn’t really much benefit to baking with it. To use it raw, the simplest application is a teaspoon or two in a smoothie. You can also add it to salad dressings, where it will turn a light dressing into a thick one.
This Japanese “elephant yam” is 40 percent glucomannan fiber and is typically sold in the form of noodles or rice known as shirataki. Branded as “Miracle Noodles” or “NoOodles,” the konjac products contain no calories, fat, carbs or anything else on their nutrition labels. Use it as you would pasta, and it takes on the taste and some of the texture of your sauce. It’s available both shelf stable and refrigerated in health food stores—just watch out that you don’t accidentally buy the soy version, which are sold under similar labels but not made exclusively of konjac. In addition to pastas and rice, new to the market is a calorie-free version of boba balls.
Photo by Picture Post/Getty
You’ve probably eaten chicory before without realizing it. Powdered and sold as “inulin,” chicory root fiber is a common additive to everything from protein bars to cereals. It’s sweet and mild in taste. Chicory is also used to create New Orleans Coffee which came about not for its flavor but as a means of extending the pricy coffee that was scarce during the Civil War. You can purchase powdered chicory root to make your own creations or choose a New Orleans style of coffee with chicory added, such as Groundwork Coffee’s “The Big Easy,” which is available in grocery stores.
Once called Jerusalem artichokes, this root veggie got a bright marketing makeover a few years ago. It tastes like a combo between an artichoke and a potato, sporting a tough skin that roasts up beautifully and an interior of incredible creaminess. Because sunchokes can be difficult to digest due to their prebiotic fiber, low and slow roasting is recommended for those who experience bloating after eating them. Some people complain they taste like dirt: to avoid this, be sure to wash them very well, including all of the little external nodules.
High in crunch but low in calories, jicama gained internet fame in recent years for its ability to stand up to baking in shoestring pieces resembling french fries. Jicama fries are definitely the most fun way to enjoy the vegetable that tastes slightly like an apple but far less sweet. To make them, you peel the jicama, cut into shoestring lengths, boil briefly, then roast on a baking sheet with a small amount of oil until golden. Jicama is high in inulin and vitamin C.
Ariane Resnick is a bestselling cookbook author, special diet chef and certified nutritionist.