Fermented foods are functional foods

The gut has many functions to health, performance and recovery as it is the very epicentre of our wellbeing.


One of the greatest things you can do to look after the health of your gut, is to nourish it with fermented foods. Not only will fermented foods help to modify the damage done to it by the many factors of modern day living (stress, lack of vegetables, lack of fibre, excessive alcohol and sugar, poor digestion, poor quality sleep, use of antibiotics) as an athlete or fitness enthusiast, you are likely to gain many great benefits from including fermented foods in your diet.

The athletic, hard-working body is placed under continuous stress both mentally and physically – this means that the body is at greater risk of poor recovery and weakened immunity. It is well documented that athletes are in a constant state of immunosuppression, placing them at great risk of infections and poor health.


I want to use this blog to share with you how fermented foods affect the gut beneficially and what fermented foods may help to improve your health, performance, recovery and strengthen immunity.


Now, fermented foods may seem relatively new and vogue of late, however, they have been around for thousands of years, when first used, they were probably very much under-appreciated for their microbial function to health.

The fermentation of certain foods was to help preserve its shelf life. The fermentation of specific products naturally brings about living bacterial species within the container the food substance is placed in and the reason why these microorganisms develop is to prevent the growth or invasion of harmful pathogenic bacteria. As a result a variety of food stuffs provide a multitude of good healthy beneficial bacteria that have been proven to help with the health of gut(1).


In this blog, I will discuss a few of the many available fermented foods, their uses in gut health and how to best consume these. Some fermented foods such as yoghurt, kombucha, sauerkraut and kimichi can be made in the comfort of your own home. I’ve dabbled in the Kombucha arena.

Fermented Foods – Benefits on Gut Health

Fermented foods help to improve intestinal permeability by strengthening the function of the intestinal barrier of the gut.


Our gut controls and deals with every aspect of our health. How we digest food, how efficiently we absorb the nutrients from our food, the development of food sensitivities and allergies is associated with our gut health. Gut health is also associated with mood, behaviour, energy, weight, food cravings, hormone balance, immunity and overall wellness(2)

Even if you don’t currently have obvious issues with your gut, the probiotics (healthy bacteria) within your entire gastrointestinal tract need to be repopulated regularly. Think of the bombardment of stress, as mentioned above, your GI tract comes under on a daily basis. Keeping the gut healthy is no easy feat but the inclusion of fermented foods on a regular basis may help and by eating a variety of fermented foods could help to expose your gut to different bacterial strains.


You could add kefir to your smoothie or have it as a yoghurt topped with homemade granola and berries, include kimchi or sauerkraut with your main meals, drink Kombucha once a week as a treat as it is high in sugar due to the amount of sugar used during the fermentation process.


My all-time Favourite Fermented Foods

SAUERKRAUT

The word sauerkraut means ‘sour cabbage’. I know, doesn’t sound appealing does it? Sauerkraut is finely-sliced cabbage that is fermented with lactobacillus bacteria. The sugars in the cabbage are converted into lactic acid which acts as a preservative.

Whilst many associate sauerkraut as a food from Germany it is thought that it may have originated from China.

If you are purchasing sauerkraut at your local grocery store, always ensure that it is unpasteurised. When heat is applied to food, the healthful probiotic bacteria can be damaged, defeating the point of eating fermented cabbage in the first place.

KOMBUCHA

Kombucha is a fermented tea-based drink. It is produced by adding what is known as a“SCOBY”, an acronym for “symbiotic culture of bacteria and yeast” to a very large jar of sugary sweet black or green tea, however, the longer the tea is fermented, the more likely it is to become sour and fizzy. Kombucha may have appeared on our grocery shelves recently but it has been said that it has been around for as long as 2,000 years and may have originally been consumed in Russia.


If you’re buying this product off the shelf, you should check to see if sugar has been added. Tea that’s been fermented for a while ends up getting very sour, to the point of almost tasting like vinegar, so manufacturers of the brew may add sugar to make it palatable together with flavourings, this should be avoided, you really don’t want to be drinking beverages with added sugar.


Kombucha can be made at home, I myself have dabbled in it a few times. During the fermentation process, the bacteria and yeast will form a jelly-fish shaped object on the surface (AKA the SCOBY! This gets used in the next fermentation process or can be eaten). Don’t be afraid if you buy some kombucha from the store and see this floating in your tea. It’s actually good for you and should be consumed. One thing about making Kombucha yourself at home, is that you need to prepare it very carefully because it can become contaminated or over-fermented and this can actually lead to health problems that are sometimes serious (this always made be nervous). It may be safer to buy your kombucha, ready-made from the store rather than taking a risk.

Kombucha's popularity is driven by its reported health benefits, which include functions such as anti-inflammatory and antioxidant activity, the improvement of liver function, the immune system and gastrointestinal health.

KEFIR

Kefir is a type of grain that is made up of live bacteria and yeasts. Kefir grains are like “starter grains” for sourdough bread and can be added to milk or water, such as coconut water to form a fermented drink that can be drank as is or added to smoothies/smoothie bowls. People with lactose intolerance may be able to consume kefir without experiencing symptoms, as the bacteria present in kefir break down much of the lactose (milk sugar) that people often have an intolerance to. I have lactose intolerance, and it has been fine for me to drink BUT that doesn’t mean it will work for everyone.


MISO

Miso is a fermented paste made from soybeans. The paste is created through a fermentation process with salt and koji (which is a starter enzyme that breaks down proteins). Miso paste is often used to make miso soup, however, it is fantastic in my Sweet Potato & Miso Bean Stew and can also be used in salad dressing. Make sure that when purchasing miso that is, like sauerkraut, unpasteurised. Miso should be used at the end of cooking to preserve its gut health benefits. NOTE: Some miso pastes are made from cultured wheat or millet or combinations of different grains and beans, if you are gluten sensitive or have celiac disease, be sure to check the label for “gluten free”.


KIMCHI

Kimchi is not too dissimilar to sauerkraut. It is a mixture of vegetables, heavily spiced and normally with a good spicy kick from the chili peppers

Kimchi is noted for its health properties due to its primary ingredient cabbage. Cabbage is an excellent source of vitamins K, C, and B6. Fermentation brings about natural probiotic qualities that may help with gut health.


Like Sauerkraut, Kimchi can easily be made at home but it does need a day or so before it is ready to eat.


I remember the first time I started trying some of these fermented foods. Their taste so unfamiliar to my taste-buds some took me some time to get my head around BUT I feel the above fermented foods, most people can get their head and taste-buds around and really enjoy them and their benefits. Always keep in mind when trying these foods that they come with a myriad of health benefits, not just for your gut health BUT your overall wellbeing.

Everyone can benefit from adding some fermented food into their diet even if they have no issues with their digestion (although let it be said here that many athletes do – some just haven’t realised it yet).

Fermented foods have a positive effect on many areas of athletic performance, it’s definitely worth trying to incorporate them into your diet. The immune-supporting probiotics and the improvements to your overall well-being will make you glad you decided to include them!

References


Bell, V., Ferrão, J., Pimentel, L., Pintado, M., & Fernandes, T. (2018). One Health, Fermented Foods, and Gut Microbiota. Foods (Basel, Switzerland), 7(12), 195.

Chilton, S. N., Burton, J. P., & Reid, G. (2015). Inclusion of fermented foods in food guides around the world. Nutrients, 7(1), 390–404.

Bell, V., Ferrão, J., Pimentel, L., Pintado, M., & Fernandes, T. (2018). One Health, Fermented Foods, and Gut Microbiota. Foods (Basel, Switzerland), 7(12), 195.

Kapp, J., Sumner, W., (2019). Kombucha: a systematic review of the empirical evidence of human health benefit. Annals of Epidemiology, (30), 66-70

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