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By Kimberly Yawitz

You may have heard of probiotics, but do you know about prebiotics?

By Kimberly Yawitz

You may have heard of probiotics, but do you know about prebiotics?


Despite the similarity in names, there are some key differences.

While probiotics rightfully get a lot of praise from health experts, prebiotics are important as well.

So, what are prebiotics, and how can you get more of them?

Keep reading to learn more about the power of prebiotics.

What Are Prebiotics?

Prebiotics are a relatively new discovery in terms of medical science.

They’re very different from probiotics, but they work closely with them.

Prebiotics vs. Probiotics

Probiotics are beneficial bacteria that have been linked with a wide range of health benefits, including (1):

  • Stronger immune system
  • Healthier gut
  • Symptom relief from depression and anxiety
  • Lower body weight
  • Improved heart health
  • Cancer prevention

Prebiotics are compounds in foods that feed probiotic bacteria. In doing so, they help beneficial bacteria grow and to work more effectively.

Prebiotic Fiber

All prebiotics are types of fiber (2).

Fibers resist digestion in the stomach and the small intestine. They reach the colon intact, where they’re fermented by probiotic bacteria for fuel (3).

During fermentation, prebiotics are broken down into short-chain fatty acids, like butyrate, acetate and propionate.

Some probiotic bacteria can feed off of these. However, these fatty acids are thought to have health benefits beyond feeding beneficial bacteria, including (4):

  • improved gut health
  • a stronger immune system
  • enhanced glucose and dietary fat metabolism
  • appetite control.

Bacteria in the colon feed off of prebiotic fiber to form short-chain fatty acids (24).

In short, both prebiotics and their digestive end-products are important to health.

Benefits of Prebiotics

Prebiotics are said to have several health benefits, including:

  • A healthier ratio of beneficial to harmful bacteria
  • Increased bone health
  • Lower risk of allergies
  • Reduced intestinal permeability
  • A healthier immune system.

Most studies to date, though, show that these benefits aren’t from the prebiotics themselves. So far, few studies have directly linked prebiotics to positive health outcomes. Rather, they play an important supporting role by helping probiotics be more effective (5).

Summary: Prebiotics are fibers that help feed probiotics. In doing so, they increase the population of healthy bacteria and help them work more effectively.

Prebiotic Foods

Though all prebiotics are fiber, not all dietary fibers are prebiotics.

The most common prebiotic fibers include:

  • Beta-Glucan
  • Fructooligosaccharides
  • Inulin
  • Galactooligosaccharides
  • Isomaltooligosaccharides
  • Guar gum
  • Lactulose
  • Resistant Starch, including maltodextrin
  • Xylooligosaccharides.

These are found in abundance in plant foods. It’s best to eat a variety of prebiotic-rich foods, in order to promote a diverse gut microbiome (5).

Here are a few types of foods that can help nourish your gut bacteria.

Root Vegetables

Root vegetables tend to be high in inulin, fructooligosaccharides and resistant starch.
This group includes true roots, as well as bulbs. Examples include onions, leeks, garlic, jicama, Jerusalem artichokes and chicory root.

Onions and garlic can be added to a variety of dishes to boost intake of prebiotics. Jerusalem artichokes and leeks are delicious roasted, while jicama is great raw in salads or baked like French fries.

Human and animal studies have shown that root vegetables can positively impact the gut biome.

One study found that after 40 days pigs fed inulin or Jerusalem artichoke had higher levels of short-chain fatty acids in the colon. The Jerusalem artichoke group also saw increases in beneficial Bifidobacterium spp. bacteria (6).

Also, in one small human study, volunteers who drank juice shots fortified with inulin from Jerusalem artichoke had significantly greater increases in probiotic bacteria than those who drank plain juice (7).

Fruits

Eating fruit every day is recommended as part of a healthy and balanced diet.

Among many other health benefits, certain fruits have positive impacts on the gut biome.

Apples and bananas are particularly rich in prebiotic fibers. Apples are high in pectin, while ripe bananas contain inulin, and unripe bananas also have resistant starch.

In one small study, women who ate two medium bananas per day for 60 days saw modest increases in bifidobacteria (8).

Meanwhile, rodent studies have found that the pectin in apples increases levels of beneficial gut bacteria while decreasing harmful bacterial strains (9).

Spring Vegetables

Spring vegetables are rich in prebiotic fibers, particularly inulin, fructooligosaccharides and xylooligosaccharides (10, 11).

Examples include greens (especially dandelion greens), peas, corn, leeks and asparagus.

Greens can be used in salads, but soaking or sautéing dandelion greens can reduce their bitterness. Other spring vegetables are highly versatile and can be incorporated into a number of dishes.

Cocoa

Would it surprise you to know that chocolate can help promote a healthy gut biome?

Cocoa beans contain fibers that can be fermented by probiotics. They also contain antioxidants called polyphenols, which can help beneficial bacteria grow in the gut (12).

Animal studies and small human studies have found that cocoa powder promotes a healthy ratio of good to bad bacteria in the bowel (12, 13).

Just keep in mind that not all chocolate is created equal. Look for a dark chocolate with few additives, or stir pure cocoa powder into yogurt, smoothies, oats or baked goods.

Lentils

Lentils are legumes, which means they grow in a pod.

Prebiotic fiber content varies depending on the type of lentil. Some types are rich in resistant starches, while others are higher in fructooligosaccharides or sugar alcohols (14).

Animal studies have found that lentil-based diets promote a favorable balance of healthy to unhealthy gut bacteria. However, limited data are available in humans (15).

Nonetheless, lentils have many health benefits, and it makes sense to include them in the diet as tolerated. They’re great in soups, curries, salads or on their own.

Whole Grains

Wheat is the most abundant source of prebiotics in the Western diet (16).

Wheat and other whole grains contain various types of prebiotic fiber. For example, barley and oats are high in beta-glucan. Others contain resistant starch or other fibers.

In one small human study, consumption of 48 grams of a whole grain breakfast per day for three weeks resulted in significant increases in bifidobacteria and lactobacilli (17).

Also, in one lab study, beta-glucan from oats showed greater prebiotic activity than other prebiotic foods, including corn and sugar beets (18).

You can maximize the prebiotic benefit by experimenting with a variety of whole grains. Whole wheat bread, rice and pasta are great, but don’t overlook less popular grains like barley, rye, farro and quinoa.

Nuts

Most nuts and seeds contain some prebiotic fiber, though walnuts are among the richest sources.

In one human study with 135 healthy adult volunteers, daily walnut consumption positively altered the gut biome by significantly increasing the abundance of Ruminococcaceae and Bifidobacteria, and significantly decreasing levels of Clostridium sp. bacteria.

Volunteers in this study ate 43 grams per day (a little over 1/3 cup chopped) of walnuts. Participants reduced calories from fat or carbohydrates due to the high calorie content of walnuts (19).

Summary: The best way to consume adequate prebiotic fibers is to eat a variety of plant foods. Aim for 5-9 servings of fruits and vegetables per day and round out your plate with whole grains, legumes and nuts. Feel free to indulge in pure cocoa for dessert.

Prebiotic Supplements

There’s a growing market for prebiotic supplements with sales expected to reach $7.5 billion by 2023 (5).

A large selection of prebiotic supplements are available online, many of which contain inulin as an active ingredient. Some popular ones include:

Unfortunately, few studies have specifically examined prebiotic supplements. Most have focused on animals or human infants, while others have looked at synbiotic supplements, which include both prebiotics and probiotics (20).

These supplements are probably safe for most adults, but we don’t know enough to say if they’re effective (21).

Summary: Prebiotic supplements have been very popular, and many options are available online. The research hasn’t caught up to the demand yet, at least in human adults. While they won’t likely harm you, there’s not enough evidence to say if they work.

Are Prebiotics Right for Everyone?

Prebiotics are safe for most people.

However, some people with irritable bowel syndrome or other digestive issues are intolerant to certain prebiotic fibers. This is because many prebiotics are high in FODMAPs.

FODMAPs are fibers that undergo fermentation in the colon, just like prebiotics. In fact, certain prebiotic foods are also high in FODMAPs.

Reaction to FODMAPs in the gut.

Some people are especially sensitive to FODMAPs and experience pain, bloating, gas, diarrhea and abdominal distention when they eat high-FODMAP foods.

A diet that temporarily restricts foods high in FODMAPs may be helpful for people who frequently experience this type of discomfort (22).

That’s not to say that you should give up prebiotics altogether, though. Doing so alters the composition of beneficial gut bacteria, many of which lower gastrointestinal distress.

Even on a FODMAP elimination diet, prebiotic foods that are high in FODMAPs should be reintroduced gradually as tolerated (23).

A free 7-day low-FODMAP starter plan is available here.

Summary: Some prebiotic fibers are high in FODMAPs, which can cause gastrointestinal issues in people who are sensitive. A diet that temporarily restricts then reintroduces high-FODMAP foods may be helpful. The reintroduction phase is important, because unnecessarily restricting prebiotic foods will limit the effectiveness of gut-friendly probiotics.

Some Final Thoughts on Prebiotics

No studies to date have directly linked prebiotics to positive health outcomes.

But that’s not to diminish their importance. Prebiotics feed probiotics and allow them to work more effectively.

As such, they play a secondary role in many important bodily functions.

There are many supplements on the market, but research hasn’t caught up to consumer demand.

For now, the best way to obtain prebiotics is to eat a diet with a wide variety of fibrous plant foods.

Do your best to incorporate whole grains, root vegetables, spring vegetables (when available), fruits, legumes and nuts.

A bit of high-quality dark chocolate won’t hurt, either.

Reposted with permission from our media associate Diet vs Disease.

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By Joe Leech

While there are many health benefits to being vegetarian, some of us don't want to completely cut out meat.

By Joe Leech

While there are many health benefits to being vegetarian, some of us don’t want to completely cut out meat.


This is the idea behind the flexitarian diet, which reduces meat intake instead of avoiding it altogether.

This article discusses the potential benefits and risks of following a flexitarian diet to help you decide if it’s a good plan for you.

What is a Flexitarian Diet?

“Flexitarianism” is essentially what it sounds like: a flexible vegetarian diet.

A person who identifies as flexitarian might eat meat occasionally, but does not include it as a regular part of their normal diet.

Most often, those who prefer not to eat meat do so for health or ethical reasons (or both). The same can be said for flexitarians looking to improve their overall health and lessen their impact on the environment.

Summary: Flexitarianism means eating a flexible vegetarian diet, which reduces meat intake instead of completely cutting it out. This may be a decision based on health or ethical reasons (or both).

Will a Flexitarian Diet Promote Weight Loss and Improve Overall Health?

In short, yes, if we first look at the benefits of a vegetarian diet.

Studies have found that those who eat a vegetarian diet are more likely to have a body mass index (BMI) that falls within the normal range.

This may be because vegetarians are likely to consume more fruit and vegetables, which are low in calories and high in fiber—two major components in promoting weight loss.

Additionally, vegetarians tend to have an increased life expectancy compared with meat-eaters. Several studies have found that people who eat a diet high in fruit, vegetables, nuts and whole grains have a lower risk of both cardiovascular disease and cancer—two of our biggest killers (1, 2).

This is likely due to the high amount of antioxidants, vitamins, minerals, fiber, phytochemicals and plant protein found in such foods (3, 4).

Meanwhile, observational studies indicate that eating red meat may lead to an increase risk of cancers, including colorectal cancer. Avoiding or limiting red meat can help reduce this risk (5).

That said, compared to a vegetarian, a flexitarian will benefit from getting important nutrients—such as protein, vitamin B12, and iron—that are highly concentrated in meat.

Interestingly, among diabetics, eating a diet low in red meat has also been shown to improve blood sugar levels (6, 7, 8). But at the same time, a low carb diet can help diabetics too.

So it seems a flexitarian eating pattern can be healthy for a range of people. As you’d expect, those who eat a semi-vegetarian diet tend to have lower BMIs, lower risk of breast cancer and lower blood glucose levels compared to those who eat meat often (9).

Summary: Flexitarians may experience similar benefits as vegetarians, who typically weigh less and have higher life expectancies. Eating a diet low in meat is also linked to lower risk of cardiovascular disease and cancer.

Health Risks of Flexitarianism

Changing your diet in any way may come with some unexpected risks.

As mentioned above, meat is an excellent source of dietary protein, as well as zinc, iron and vitamins like B1, B2, B3 and B12.

This means flexitarians need to be sure they’re getting these nutrients from other sources when cutting down on meat.

For example, limiting red meat may increase your risk of iron deficiency anemia. Flexitarians may want to increase their intake of plant foods like soybeans, chickpeas, quinoa and lentils—all good sources of iron (9).

You’ll also want to seek out high-protein plant foods, such as nuts, seeds, lentils, tofu and beans. This graph gives you an idea of the protein content of many plant foods:

Summary: Eating a flexitarian diet may lead to deficiency in iron, as well as other essential nutrients like protein, zinc and B12. Flexitarians need to be sure they’re getting these nutrients from both meat and plant sources.

Who Should (and Shouldn’t) Consider a Flexitarian Diet?

If you are overweight, at increased cardiovascular risk (including those with high blood pressure, high cholesterol, type 2 diabetes or people with a family history of metabolic health issues) or have ethical concerns about eating meat, you may benefit from adopting a flexitarian lifestyle.

However, you should discuss this diet with your doctor or dietitian if you have:

  • Iron deficiency or any other type of anemia
  • Dietary allergies or intolerances that limit your intake of non-meat foods
  • A history of eating disorders or drastically restricting your diet (10).

Summary: Those who are overweight or at increased cardiovascular risk may benefit from following a flexitarian diet. Anyone with existing health problems should discuss the decision with their doctor or dietitian first.

How to Become Flexitarian

If you currently eat meat, it’s best to make small, gradual changes to your diet.

Consider tracking your meat intake for one week. Write down every portion of meat consumed for seven days.

The following week, aim to reduce meat intake by around one serving (approximately 85 grams or 3 ounces). Continue doing this week by week until your weekly meat intake equates to less than five servings per week.

It’s useful to observe when your largest intake of meat is likely to occur. For most people, this will be dinner. Replace meat in the evening meal with vegetarian options or meat substitutes.

Because the flexitarian diet is, by definition, flexible, you can choose how much meat you wish to consume. Continue to gradually lessen your meat consumption until you reach a point that feels right to you.

See below for ways to incorporate this idea into a meal plan.

Summary: To adopt a flexitarian lifestyle, gradually reduce meat intake by cutting out one serving a week.

2-Day Sample Flexitarian Diet Plan

Day 1

Breakfast: Omelette with eggs, cheese and selected vegetables as desired (e.g. mushrooms, tomatoes, bell peppers)

Lunch: Sandwich on wholegrain bread with cottage cheese, lettuce, tomato, grated carrot, cucumber

Dinner: Pasta with vegetarian sauce

Snacks: Fruit, nuts, yogurt

Day 2

Breakfast: Rolled oats with milk and berries

Lunch: Sandwich on wholegrain bread with egg, cheese, lettuce, tomato, alfalfa sprouts, beetroot

Dinner: Roast vegetables with tofu and couscous

Snacks: Fruit, nuts, yogurt.

Is a Flexitarian Diet Right for You?

There is no one perfect diet.

In fact , the best diet for you may very well be different to me.

What I like about the flexitarian diet is that it allows for flexibility.

This places the diet among the more sensible and sustainable methods of eating (unlike the ketogenic diet) as it doesn’t require strict dietary restriction.

Overall, reducing meat intake may offer many health benefits, particularly if you are already overweight or experience metabolic health issues. Meat is high in calories so reducing your intake will be beneficial.

To start, try cutting out one serving of meat (about 3 ounces) every week. But note that those with existing health problems, including iron deficiency or other anemias, should talk to their doctor or a dietitian first.

Making these types of slow, gradual changes to your diet will lead to longer lasting changes and hopefully a beautiful relationship with food and your health.

Reposted with permission from our media associate Diet vs Disease.

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By Joe Leech

Bitter.

By Joe Leech

Bitter.

That’s the best word I can use to describe moringa, the seeds of which I tried in Uganda.


Despite its strong taste, moringa is quickly becoming a popular nutrition supplement in the U.S.

All parts of the moringa tree—including the seeds, pods and leaves—have long been used in other parts of the world for their nutritional properties.

This article looks at what moringa is and some of its most beneficial uses, including disease prevention and even water purification.

What is Moringa?

Often referred to as the “miracle tree,” the fast-growing moringa tree is actually native to northern India.

The most well-known and widely used part of the tree are its seeds, which have been part of a traditional diet in Asia and Africa for centuries.

Today, moringa is readily available in various forms, including capsules, extracts, oils, powders and teas. The seeds can also be roasted and eaten like nuts, and the flowers can be used to make tea.

However, the easiest way to consume moringa is in powder form, made from dried leaves. The taste is much milder than the seeds, and dried leaves actually contains higher amounts of nutrients than the fresh versions.

Overall, moringa is highly valued for its nutritional benefits. It’s also been used for non-food purposes like biodiesel production and as an ingredient in beauty products (1).

Summary: Moringa originates from northern India and has long been used for nutritional, medical and various non-food uses.

1. Moringa is Rich in Nutrients

Moringa is rich in vitamins, minerals and bioactive compounds.

One cup (140 g) of moringa seeds contains (2):

  • Calories = 37
  • Carbohydrates = 8.5 g
  • Protein = 2 g
  • Fat = <1 g
  • Vitamin C = 235% daily value
  • Iron = 350% daily value
  • Potassium = 13% daily value
  • Magnesium = 28% daily value
  • Calcium = 3% Daily Value

Note the exceptional amounts of iron (350% of daily value) and Vitamin C (235%).

Moringa seeds also contain 19 of 22 amino acids, including all 9 essential amino acids, which your body can’t produce itself. This is similar to other well-known “superfoods” seeds like sunflower and chia seeds (3).

Meanwhile, the pods are especially fibrous, which can help with digestive issues.

Even with this impressive amount of nutrients, moringa is very low in calories.

Summary: Moringa seeds are low in calories, but rich in essential vitamins, minerals and amino acids.

2. The Moringa Plant Combats Malnutrition

In developing nations, where malnutrition is more prevalent, moringa can be a lifesaver.

In fact, many communities and villages are cultivating the moringa plant in order to make it a staple part of their diet.

Along with its impressive amount of vitamins and minerals, moringa is a good source of protein and essential fats.

The leaves have even been used as a multivitamin supplement because of their high amounts of minerals like iron, calcium, and zinc, all essential for growth and development.

The tree is also resistant to drought and can withstand dry and hot climates, making it an excellent, nutrient-dense food source for impoverished communities.

Summary: Moringa is a good source of protein, fats, vitamins and minerals necessary for proper growth and development. The plant is easy to grow and resistant to drought, making it an important food source for malnourished communities.

3. Can Be Used for Water Purification

Boasting antimicrobial properties, moringa seeds also play a powerful role in water purification in developing nations.

When the oil is extracted from the moringa seeds, a protein-rich “cake” is left behind. This can inhibit bacterial growth and be used to purify water for humans and animals (3).

Because moringa can be grown in abundance, this is an easy, cost-effective way to prevent waterborne diseases.

Summary: Moringa seed extract can inhibit bacterial growth and be used to purify water, making it potable for humans and animals.

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4. Acts as an Anti-inflammatory and Antioxidant

Research shows that moringa seeds contain a powerful mix of health-promoting antioxidants (4).

In mouse studies, moringa seed extract functioned as an anti-inflammatory and antioxidant, improving symptoms of ulcerative colitis (UC). This data suggests a similar effect could be seen in humans (5).

Another study found that boiling the seeds increased the availability of both antioxidants and iron (6).

Summary: Moringa seeds offer anti-inflammatory and antioxidant effects, which may help symptoms of ulcerative colitis.

5. Boosts Heart Health

Various studies have found that moringa seeds may be beneficial to heart health.

They contain high levels of monounsaturated fats, which can help lower LDL (bad) cholesterol and may decrease your risk of heart disease and stroke if replacing saturated fat.

In one lab study done on rats, the consumption of moringa seeds decreased oxidative stress and protected heart cells while reducing inflammation (7).

Another study on rats found that moringa seed powder reduced cardiac fibrosis, triglycerides and heart rate, and improved overall cardiac function (8).

Summary: Studies have found that moringa seeds may improve heart health by reducing triglycerides, oxidative stress and inflammation.

6. Moringa Supports Digestion

Due to its high fiber content, moringa pods may be beneficial for your digestion.

Each pod contains around 47% fiber and can help you digest regularly and easily (9).

In saying that, whether you’ll benefit from an increase or decrease in fiber depends on your situation.

It’s also unclear if this would be considered low FODMAP and suitable for IBS as it has not been tested.

Summary: Moringa pods are high in fiber, which can aid digestion in many instances.

7. May Help Fight Cancer

Moringa seeds are known for their potential cancer-fighting abilities.

A protein extracted from moringa seeds has been shown to slow the growth of liver cancer in both human and animal cells by up to 71% (10).

In another lab study, moringa seed extract kept breast cancer cells from significantly growing and spreading (11).

Liver and colon cancer cells have also been shown to decrease significantly when treated with moringa seeds (12).

Although this research only reflects lab studies and cannot be applied to humans, the results are promising.

Summary: Moringa seeds have been shown to slow the growth of cancer cells in various lab studies.

Why You Should Try Moringa Leaves and Seeds

The seeds, pods and leaves of the moringa tree are rich in nutrients and contain very few calories.

Studies have also shown that moringa has anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties, and may even help improve digestion and heart health too.

In fact, it’s so nutritious that the moringa tree is cultivated in developing countries as it helps combat malnutrition and can even purify water. It’s literally a lifesaver.

Moringa can now be found all over the world in various forms, including capsules, extracts, oils, powders and teas. This is one of the most popular moringa supplements available on Amazon, the reviews are surprising.

Just be prepared for a rather potent flavor.

Reposted with permission from our media associate Diet vs Disease.

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