12 Must-Eat Fermented Foods for Better Digestion and Weight Loss

by Marixie Ann Obsioma
Published on November 25, 2020 and last updated for accuracy on December 2, 2020

Popular across cultures for centuries, fermenting has made a fashionable comeback as a provider of ‘good’ bacteria that contributes to a healthy digestive system. Want to know what the fuss is all about? Let’s give you the lowdown.  

Historically the fermentation technique was used as a way of preserving foods and drinks long before the days of refrigeration. During the process of fermentation, microorganisms such as bacteria, yeast or fungi convert organic compounds such as sugars and starch into alcohol or acids. For example, starches and sugars in vegetables and fruits are converted to lactic acid and this lactic acid acts as a natural preservative. Fermentation can produce quite distinctive, strong, slightly sour flavors.

The consumption of foods and drinks that have undergone fermentation contain benefits to health that stretch beyond food preservation. The transformation of sugars and starches enhances the natural, beneficial bacteria in food. These bacteria, known as probiotics or ‘good’ bacteria are thought to help a multitude of health issues, specifically digestive health.

How Can You Benefit from Eating Fermented Foods?

A number of health benefits are associated with fermentation. In fact, fermented foods are often more nutritious than their unfermented form.

Here are the key health benefits of fermented foods.

Improves Digestive Health

The probiotics produced during fermentation can help restore the balance of friendly bacteria in your gut and may alleviate some digestive problems (1).

Evidence suggests that probiotics can reduce uncomfortable symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), a common digestive disorder (2, 3).

One 6-week study in 274 adults with IBS found that consuming 4.4 ounces of yogurt-like fermented milk daily improved IBS symptoms, including bloating and stool frequency (4).

What’s more, fermented foods may also lessen the severity of diarrhea, bloating, gas, and constipation (5, 6).

For these reasons, adding fermented foods to your diet may be useful if you regularly experience gut issues.

Makes Food Easier to Digest 

Good bacteria help break down complex carbohydrates that you eat. This fermenting and metabolizing process results in other substances that are beneficial to your body, too.

For a diverse gut microbiota, you need plenty of soluble fiber from foods like beans, oats and oranges. Insoluble fiber, which is found in many whole grains, is good for you, but it’s not easily fermented, so it doesn’t really contribute to the diversity of your gut bacteria.

Boosts Your Immune System

The bacteria that live in your gut have a significant impact on your immune system.

Due to their high probiotic content, fermented foods can give your immune system a boost and reduce your risk of infections like the common cold (7, 8).

Consuming probiotic-rich foods may also help you recover faster when you’re sick (9, 10).

Additionally, many fermented foods are rich in vitamin C, iron, and zinc; all of which are proven to contribute to a stronger immune system (11, 12).

Your Body Needs Help Making Certain Vitamins

Good bacteria are to thank for synthesizing, or producing, many vitamins your body needs. That list includes vitamins B1, B2, B3, B5, B6, B12 and K.

Helps Restore Gut Health After An Antibiotic Treatment 

Ever had diarrhea or other digestive problems after taking antibiotics? That’s because they wipe out both good and bad bacteria. Eating fermented foods may help restore your gut bacteria to normal. Be sure to eat a diet high in fiber and plant-based foods, which gut microbes flourish on.

The Body Needs Balance

Tiny bacteria in your intestine have full-body effects. Research shows a less diverse gut microbiota is associated with many chronic disease, such as obesity, asthma and chronic inflammatory conditions such as inflammatory bowel disease. Research is still ongoing into why this is the case.

The Good Bacteria Fight the Bad and Usually Win

Every day, you swallow pathogenic (disease-causing) bacteria. You don’t always get sick from it, though, because your tiny microscopic helpers take care of it. Good bacteria create acidic fermentation byproducts that lower your intestine’s pH, decreasing the chance that bad bacteria can survive. They also compete for food supply and squatting rights on your intestinal lining. Plus, they secrete antimicrobial proteins that kill off bad bacteria.

Supports Mental Health

A few studies have linked the probiotic strains Lactobacillus helveticus and Bifidobacterium longum to a reduction in symptoms of anxiety and depression. Both probiotics are found in fermented foods (13, 14).

Good for the Heart 

Fermented foods have been associated with a lower risk of heart disease. Probiotics may also modestly reduce blood pressure and help lower total and “bad” LDL cholesterol (15, 16).

Longer Shelf Life  

Leave a cucumber or quart of milk in your refrigerator and it will go bad in a week to 10 days. Fermented foods, however, last much longer. Refrigerated pickles, salsa, and sauerkraut, for example, will keep for months.

Saves You Money                     

Whether you can or pickle it yourself, fermented vegetables can lower food costs and stretch your budget while keeping healthy veggies on the plate, in season or out.

Tastes Great                     

It may seem counterintuitive given our propensity for sweet, but that pungent pop you get from fermented foods tastes great.

Fermentation and Weight Loss 

Fermented foods help in aiding weight loss. This is the reason that these foods contain intestine-friendly bacteria and these bacteria help in keeping digestive system and immunity in check. When you have a smooth digestive system and strong immunity, you maintain a healthy body weight.

Inflammation can hinder your weight loss journey and fermented foods also help in treating inflammation. According to health experts, inflammation activates our body’s ‘fat trigger’ cells. This indicates the brain that body is in distress and to store fat, instead of burning it. Fermented foods help in reducing inflammation in the body as inflammation can hinder your weight loss goals. Various studies have proven that unfriendly gut bacteria are associated with obesity. By eating fermented food, you make your gut healthy, which is required for losing weight.

While more research is needed, some studies have found links between certain probiotic strains including Lactobacillus rhamnosus and Lactobacillus gasseri and weight loss and decreased belly fat (17, 18).

12 Must-Eat Fermented Foods

Go for variety!

1. Kefir

Kefir is a type of cultured dairy product.

It’s made by adding kefir grains, which are made up of a combination of yeast and bacteria, to milk. This results in a thick and tangy beverage with a taste that’s often compared to yogurt.

Studies have shown that kefir may come with many benefits, affecting everything from digestion to inflammation to bone health.

In one small 2003 study, kefir was shown to improve the digestion of lactose in 15 people with lactose intolerance. Those who are lactose intolerant are unable to digest the sugars in dairy products, resulting in symptoms such as cramps, bloating, and diarrhea (19).

Not only does the kefir drink help improve lactose digestion, but it also contains less lactose than milk. When kefir grains and milk are combined to make the kefir drink, the bacteria in the kefir grains help ferment and break down the lactose in the milk.

Another study found that consuming 6.7 ounces of kefir daily for 6 weeks decreased markers of inflammation, a known contributor to the development of chronic diseases such as heart disease and cancer (20, 21).

Kefir may also help enhance bone health. One study looked at the effects of kefir on 40 people with osteoporosis, a condition characterized by weak, porous bones.

After 6 months, the group consuming kefir was found to have improved bone mineral density compared to a control group (22).

Enjoy kefir on its own or use it to give your smoothies and blended drinks a boost.

2. Sauerkraut

Sauerkraut is good for more than just topping a hot dog. Made from just cabbage and salt, this fermented food delivers a healthy dose of probiotics and fiber. You can make your own or buy sauerkraut at the store. The kind sold in the refrigerated section will have more probiotics than shelf-stable canned or jarred varieties.

3. Kombucha

Kombucha is a tangy, effervescent tea-typically black or green-that’s rich in good-for-you yeast and bacteria. The drink is often flavored with herbs or fruit. You can find kombucha in natural foods stores, farmers’ markets and your regular grocery store. A tiny amount of alcohol is sometimes produced during fermentation-usually less than 0.5 percent alcohol by volume, although some have been found to have closer to 2-3 percent. If you’re not into the sour taste, you may just have not found the right brand or flavor for you.

4. Tempeh

Tempeh is made from fermented soybeans that have been pressed into a compact cake.

This high-protein meat substitute is firm but chewy and can be baked, steamed, or sautéed before being added to dishes.

In addition to its impressive probiotic content, tempeh is rich in many nutrients that may better your health. For example, soy protein has been shown to help reduce certain risk factors for heart disease.

A 2019 literature review, which took into account over 40 studies, looked at the effects of eating soy protein. Consuming 25 grams of soy protein every day for 6 weeks led to a 3.2% decrease in LDL (bad) cholesterol and a 2.8% decrease in total cholesterol (23).

Additionally, a test-tube study found that certain plant compounds in tempeh could act as antioxidants. This helps reduce the buildup of free radicals, which are harmful compounds that can contribute to chronic disease (24).

Tempeh is perfect for vegetarians and meat-eaters alike. Use it for anything from sandwiches to stir-fries to take advantage of its many health benefits.

5. Miso

A fermented paste made from barley, rice or soybeans, miso adds a nice umami flavor to dishes. It’s bold, so a little goes a long way, which is good because it’s also high in sodium. Miso is typically found in soups, but also makes salad dressings and marinades even more delicious and gut healthy.

6. Natto

Natto is a staple probiotic food in traditional Japanese cuisine.

Like tempeh, it’s made from fermented soybeans. It has a very strong flavor and slippery texture.

It contains a good amount of fiber, providing 5.4 grams per 3.5-ounce serving.

Fiber may help support digestive health. It moves through the body undigested, adding bulk to stool to help promote regularity and alleviate constipation.

Natto is also high in vitamin K, an important nutrient that’s involved in the metabolism of calcium and plays a major role in bone health.

In studies observing hundreds of Japanese women, Natto intake was associated with reduced bone loss in those who were postmenopausal (25, 26).

The fermentation of Natto also produces an enzyme called nattokinase. In a study of 12 young Japanese men, one-time supplementation with nattokinase helped prevent and dissolve blood clots (27).

Other studies also found that supplementing with this enzyme helped reduce diastolic and systolic blood pressure.

In a Japanese study lasting 8 weeks, diastolic and systolic blood pressure dropped by 2.84 and 5.55 mmHg, respectively. In a North American study also lasting 8 weeks, diastolic and systolic blood pressure dropped by 3 and 4 mmHg, respectively (28, 29).

Natto is often paired with rice and served as part of a digestion-boosting breakfast.

7. Kimchi

Kimchi is a popular Korean side dish that’s usually made from fermented cabbage. It can also be made from other fermented vegetables such as radishes.

It boasts an extensive array of health benefits and may be especially effective when it comes to lowering cholesterol and reducing insulin resistance.

Insulin is responsible for transporting glucose from the blood to the tissues. When you sustain high levels of insulin for long periods, your body stops responding to it normally, resulting in high blood sugar and insulin resistance.

In one study, 21 people with prediabetes consumed either fresh or fermented kimchi for 8 weeks. By the end of the study, those consuming fermented kimchi had decreased insulin resistance, blood pressure, and body weight (30).

In another study, people were given a diet with either a high or low amount of kimchi for 7 days. People in the first group received 210 grams of kimchi a day. People in the second group only received 15 grams.

Interestingly, a higher intake of kimchi led to greater decreases in blood sugar, blood cholesterol, and LDL (bad) cholesterol (31).

Kimchi is easy to make and can be added to everything from noodle bowls to sandwiches.

8. Lassi

Made from soured milk, lassi has been drunk as a pre-dinner yogurt drink for centuries. They are a popular way of achieving probiotic bacteria.

9. Rejuvelac

Rejuvelac is a drink made from wheat or other fermented cereals that provides a restorative and regenerative effect on the body, it also strengthens the immune system, it improves digestion and it protects against inflammation. It is usually prepared using ingredients such as oats, barley, rye, quinoa, rice and millet and it has a taste that vaguely resembles that one of lemonade.

10. Bread with Sourdough

The sourdough is a yeast that is obtained through natural fermentation and it has two main ingredients: water and flour. Replacing the normal brewer’s yeast with sourdough allows you to prepare more digestible bread, pizzas and focaccias at home. A really precious fermented food to use for the preparation of long leavening doughs.

11. Pickles

As one of the most common fermented vegetables, pickles are available on supermarket shelves across the country. Pickles are made up of cucumbers soaked in salty water, which allows them to ferment and boosts their content of gut-friendly probiotics.

Keep in mind that the kosher dill pickles soaked in vinegar at most grocery stores don’t carry the same probiotic benefits as the fermented pickles soaked in brine. Try making your own at home or look for pickles without vinegar at your local health food store to maximize the potential health benefits.

12. Probiotic Yogurt

Yogurt is produced from milk that’s been fermented, most commonly with lactic acid bacteria.

It’s high in many important nutrients, including calcium, potassium, phosphorus, riboflavin, and vitamin B12.

Yogurt has also been associated with a wide variety of health benefits.

One literature review of 14 studies showed that fermented milk products such as probiotic yogurt could help reduce blood pressure, especially in those with high blood pressure (32).

Another study found that a higher intake of yogurt was linked to improvements in bone mineral density and physical function in older adults (33).

It may also help keep your waistline in check. A 2015 literature review suggested that eating yogurt was associated with a lower body weight, less body fat, and a smaller waist circumference (34).

Remember that not all yogurt varieties contain probiotics, as these beneficial bacteria are often killed during processing.

Look for yogurts that contain live cultures to make sure you’re getting your dose of probiotics. Additionally, make sure to opt for yogurts with minimal added sugar.

How to Include More Fermented Foods in Your Diet

Need a few ideas for how to add more fermented foods to your daily routine? Here are some simple strategies that make it easier than ever to enjoy these nutritious and delicious ingredients:

  • Swap regular yogurt for probiotic yogurt as a nutrient-rich snack or breakfast option.
  • Trade sweetened tea, soda, or juice for a serving of Kombucha instead.
  • Implement a “meatless Monday” by switching animal-based proteins in your meal plan for tempeh or Natto.
  • Top off your burgers, wraps, tacos, or rice bowls with kimchi, pickles, or sauerkraut instead.
  • Enjoy miso soup as a simple side dish to squeeze in an extra serving of probiotics during your day.

Key Takeaway 

Adding more fermented foods to your diet is a great way to give your gut health a boost. In addition to their probiotic content, these healthy ingredients also supply a steady stream of the vitamins, minerals, and nutrients that your body needs, plus possible weight loss. 

With these, there’s no reason for you not to feast on fermented foods!

References: 

(1) https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/22529959/

(2) https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/19220890/

(3) https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/29460487/

(4) https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/17635382/

(5) https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/28286561/

(6) https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/19114770/

(7) https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/25430686/

(8) https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4979858/

(9) https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/19747410/

(10) https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/16844267/

(11) https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/17922955/

(12) https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/17726308/

(13) https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/20974015/

(14) https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/27413138/

(15) https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/24299712/

(16) https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/23614897/

(17) https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/25047574/

(18) https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/23823502/

(19) https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/12728216/

(20) https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/23621727/

(21) https://www.nature.com/articles/s41591-019-0675-0

(22) https://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0144231

(23) https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6543199

(24) https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.3109/13880209.2014.942791

(25) https://academic.oup.com/jn/article/136/5/1323/4669999

(26) https://www.jstage.jst.go.jp/article/tjem/239/2/239_95/_html/-char/en

(27) https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4479826

(28) https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/18971533/

(29) https://www.dovepress.com/consumption-of-nattokinase-is-associated-with-reduced-blood-pressure-a-peer-reviewed-fulltext-article-IBPC

(30) https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/23969321/

(31) https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3598433/

(32) https://www.cambridge.org/core/journals/british-journal-of-nutrition/article/effect-of-probiotic-fermented-milk-on-blood-pressure-a-metaanalysis-of-randomised-controlled-trials/FD111BEA956FC3963AF3D53A2BE111E8

(33) https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s00198-017-4049-5

(34) https://www.nature.com/articles/ijo2015202

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