Boost Your Health with Fermented Foods like Kefir, Sauerkraut and Kimchi - Virtua Article

Boost Your Health with Fermented Foods Like Kefir, Sauerkraut and Kimchi

By Alexis Newman, RD, Virtua Weight Loss & Wellness Center

Most people have heard that eating a diet rich in probiotics, otherwise known as “good bacteria,” is good for digestive health. And most of us also know that those bacteria are present in yogurt products. However, you can easily add many other fermented to your diet to get similar benefits.

What are fermented foods?

Fermentation, which has been used as a food preservation technique for centuries, is the chemical breakdown of a substance (in this case, food) by bacteria, yeasts or other microorganisms. When food is fermented, it’s left to sit until the sugars and carbohydrates break down and cause good bacteria to flourish.

Fermented foods contain good bacteria such as Lactobacillus, Bifidobacterium and probiotics, and include:

  • All types of yogurt
  • Raw sauerkraut, a German dish made from fermented cabbage
  • Kimchi, a spicy Korean dish made from fermented cabbage
  • Kefir, a fermented milk product that tastes like drinkable yogurt
  • Kombucha, a fermented beverage of black tea and sugar
  • Miso, which is made from fermented soybean, barley or brown rice
  • Tempeh, a cake-like fermented soybean product
  • Raw cheeses, which are made from unpasteurized milk

What are the benefits of fermented foods?

Your digestive tract is home to good and bad bacteria. When too many harmful bacteria are present, you can experience digestive issues and other health problems. A diet rich in fermented foods helps the good bacteria counterbalance the bad bacteria so your digestive tract can function normally.

Research has shown that the good bacteria found in fermented foods regulate digestive problems such as constipation, irritable bowel syndrome and diarrhea. But, they also provide many other benefits, including:

  • A stronger immune system
  • Healthier skin
  • Reduced inflammation throughout the body
  • Lower blood pressure
  • Reduced risk of heart disease

Although probiotic supplements are available over the counter, the best source of good bacteria is food. That’s because fermented foods are easily digestible and allow your body absorb nutrients more easily. To get the most benefit from fermented foods it's best to consume them daily.

How can I incorporate fermented foods into my diet?

Many people consistently consume fermented foods without realizing it. However, if you’re new to fermented foods, aim for one half-cup serving each day and increase your intake from there.

An easy way to incorporate fermented foods into your diet is to start by having one serving (a half cup) of yogurt per day. Although some yogurt brands tout their probiotic benefits, all types of yogurt contain good bacteria. However, be sure to choose a yogurt that is low in sugar.

Other fermented foods can be an acquired taste, but you can still get all their benefits by incorporating them into other dishes. For example, using kefir in a smoothie or adding a tablespoon of sauerkraut or kimchi to a raw salad is a good way to increase your intake of fermented foods.

When eating fermented foods, it’s important to remember that they should be refrigerated when purchased, stored in the refrigerator and consumed cold. Heating fermented foods during packaging, storage or preparation kills the good bacteria.  

Where can I find fermented foods?

You can find fermented foods in the natural-foods section of most supermarkets, but they’re usually more widely available at natural-food stores. As more people become aware of the health benefits of fermented foods, you may begin to see more products on grocery shelves.

Can I make fermented foods at home?

Making fermented vegetables such as kimchi and sauerkraut at home is simple and requires only a few ingredients. For example, this sauerkraut recipe only uses three ingredients.

Is there anyone who should not consume fermented foods?

Anyone can consume fermented foods. However, infants, pregnant women and anyone on immunosuppressant medications, should avoid consuming raw or unpasteurized fermented dairy products because they can carry harmful Listeria bacteria.

Adding fermented foods to your diet is an excellent way to improve your digestive and heart health while boosting your immune system. And trying new fermented food products and recipes is a great way to experiment with new tastes.

For help in creating a healthy diet that fits your lifestyle, call 1-888-VIRTUA-3 for an appointment with a Virtua registered dietitian.

Updated August 22, 2017

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