The Top 10 Prebiotic Foods

The Top 10 Prebiotic Foods

Foods that deliver prebiotics are just as important as food that contain probiotics. So why aren’t we talking about them more?

Prebiotics are non-digestible carbohydrates that feed the good bacteria in the gut. Basically, prebiotics help probiotics flourish, so eating more of them is a great strategy — especially to reap the many health benefits, like improving your digestive health, supporting immunity and fighting off various diseases.

In fact, research suggests that a diet high in prebiotics may lower your risk for colorectal cancer. Adding prebiotics may also increase calcium absorption and keep you satiated after meals. You don’t need prebiotics to make probiotics work, but the two work synergistically to promote a healthy and well-functioning gut. "Failure to feed a subset of microbes by avoiding whole food groups like grains or certain vegetables, means they will not have the resources to replicate or serve their essential functions," says Vanessa Méndez, M.D, a triple board-certified gastroenterologist.

"There are different types of prebiotics," adds Nour Zibdeh, M.S, R.D.N., a functional dietitian specializing in digestive disorders. The prebiotics that are commonly highlighted are oligosaccharides, which are a type of carbohydrate naturally found in a variety of plant foods. Others include fructans, inulin and pectin. When "good" bacteria probiotics ferment prebiotics, they produce "postbiotics," which are healthy, beneficial byproducts that are "heart-protective and help prevent diabetes," says Zibdeh.

You’re probably already eating prebiotics, especially if you’re consuming a variety of high-fiber rich foods, but it might be time to take it up a notch to ensure you reap the benefits. Here are some of the top prebiotic foods worth adding to your diet.

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1) Onions

Onions are an ingredient in many popular dishes. The great news is they contain prebiotics, specifically inulin and fructooligosaccharides, both of which cannot be digested by the human body. Instead, they stay in the bowel and help the good bacteria thrive, supporting a healthy digestion and gut microbiome. Raw and cooked onions are both sources of prebiotics. One study confirmed the prebiotic effects of onion on probiotic cells.

There are many varieties of onions that pack in both antioxidants and anti-inflammatory properties to fight free radicals in the body and support overall health. There are also other health benefits of onions: The high amount of vitamin C adds a nutritional punch that makes the onion an immune-supporting food, just like prebiotics. In one cup of chopped onions, you’ll meet about 10% of the daily value. Now that’s something to cry happy tears about.

Add onions to your breakfast omelet, a delicious spring salad or a savory onion tart.

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2) Garlic

Garlic is part of the Allium family and is closely related to shallots, leeks and onions. The fructans found in garlic are what give it its prebiotic effects. A report published in The Scientific World Journal describes fructans to be health-promoting food ingredients that act as prebiotics in the gut. "They're also antimicrobial and help balance blood sugar," says Zibdeh.

There are additional health benefits of garlic: You'll find traces of micronutrients like manganese, vitamin B6 and potassium, and garlic is known to protect against the common cold due to its naturally-occurring bioactive compounds.

It’s best eaten raw, so crush or mince a clove and make a flavorful salad dressing, chunky salsa or a white bean dip.

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3) Apples

Unpeeled apples are naturally high in pectin. Pectin is recognized as a prebiotic that is not broken down by human saliva or gastric acid and is resistant to digestive enzymes pepsin, trypsin and rennet.

Instead, it makes a gel in your digestive tract after ingestion, a function that provides numerous health benefits like improving cholesterol levels. Pectin does this by binding with cholesterol in the digestive tract, which keeps it from being absorbed in the body and thereby supports cardiovascular health.

You can enjoy an apple by itself, chop it up to add to steel-cut oats or make this Seared Steak With Apple Salad and Horseradish Vinaigrette.

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4) Underripe bananas

Bananas are one of the most perfect on-the-go snacks! Not only are they an excellent source of potassium and carbohydrates, they also provide gut-thriving prebiotics.

One study found that green or underripe bananas have bioactive compounds, including phenolics and phytosterols, and contain resistant starch, a type of prebiotic present in both the pulp and peel that is beneficial to colon health. In addition, they are a source of food for the probiotic bacteria Lactobacilli.

Prebiotic foods can also help improve your mental health. "A study published in Brain, Behavior, and Immunity found that a diet high in prebiotics was linked with improved mood and cognition," says Méndez.

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5) Dandelion greens

Dandelion greens are extremely high in inulin, a type of fiber known to encourage healthy bacteria to thrive. It’s also been shown to promote the movement of food through the gastrointestinal tract, supporting overall digestion. In fact, it has been used in traditional medicine for centuries as the go-to for constipation relief.

Dandelion greens are extremely nutrient-dense. They are an excellent source of vitamins C, A and K and have beta-carotene and polyphenol compounds which "help lower inflammation," says Zibdeh. Due to its bitter taste, it's often enjoyed cooked and paired with sweeter foods, such as fruit.

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6) Oatmeal

There are so many reasons to eat oats. Not only is it quick to make — you can cook it on the stovetop or just let it soak in the fridge for overnight oats — the resistant starches found in oats can multiply the good bacteria in the gut to help keep you feeling your best.

You may have heard that oats are good for heart health, and that is very true. One study suggests that the prebiotic activity of oats to modulate the gut microbiome contributes to its cholesterol-lowering effects. It may also help with blood sugar regulation, thanks to soluble fiber beta-glucan bringing in all the prebiotic activity.

This highly nutritious food is packed with key minerals like iron, folate, zinc. One cup of oats has 60% of the daily value for manganese, a mineral needed for the normal functioning of your brain and many of the body’s enzyme systems.

Try this Oatmeal with Yogurt and Toasted Almonds.

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7) Asparagus

Raw asparagus counts as a prebiotic source, but if you don’t find it palatable, lightly sautéed stalks are still a great option that will deliver the prebiotic contents.

Asparagus has high levels of inulin, which is an indigestible fiber that feeds good bacteria like Lactobacilli and Bifidobacteria and adds bulk to the stool, supporting regular bowel movements.

You’ll also find high levels of B vitamins and key nutrients like folate, which protects against neural tube defects in pregnant women.

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8) Ground flaxseeds

Flaxseeds are a versatile ingredient that has a mild, nutty and crisp consistency. They contain fiber and polyphenols called lignans, making them a prebiotic source. And there are other health benefits of flaxseed: It’s incredibly high in thiamine, a B vitamin that plays a key role in cell function and energy metabolism.

You’ll want to go for ground over whole flaxseed, since it’s much easier to digest. Whole flaxseed will pass through the intestines undigested, which means you won't get to enjoy all of the benefits it has to offer. If you’re dealing with constipation or want to help control your cholesterol levels, adding flaxseeds is a good idea, according to one small study.

Not sure how to enjoy it? Add a tablespoon to your hot breakfast cereal, mix it into yogurt with fruit or use it to make an egg substitute for vegan baking.

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9) Jerusalem artichokes

Jerusalem artichokes — also referred to as “sunchokes” — contain high amounts of inulin, a prebiotic that supports digestive function. Inulin stimulates the growth of beneficial bacteria, such as Bifidobacterium, according to a small trial reported in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition.

Jerusalem artichokes are a good plant source of iron; just add vitamin C–rich foods like peppers and Brussels sprouts to help maximize the absorption since it’s an iron source that doesn't absorb well on its own.

They have a flavor like a sweeter, nuttier potato. To eat them, peel off the skin, shred them and sprinkle on a salad, roast them or blend them into a soup or a dip.

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10) Seaweed

There are many health benefits of seaweed. Certain species, like Eucheuma Spinosum, are an emerging source of prebiotics because they are resistant to digesting enzymes and enhance gut microbial activity. Seaweed contains a significant amount of iodine — with just one serving, you can easily meet the daily recommended amount.

This versatile marine food is trending everywhere: You’ll find it in packaged snacks and in a variety of dishes from sushi rolls to soups, stews, salads and smoothies too.

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12) So should you eat more prebiotics?

Absolutely! Prebiotics are the foods that feed and are digested by our beneficial gut microbes. The microorganisms found in the gut microbiome are in charge of digesting different groups of fiber.

If you have been diagnosed with digestive issues like IBS or SIBO, or if you suffer from gas, bloating, excessive burping, diarrhea or sometimes constipation, eating more prebiotic foods can backfire and make you feel worse. "It's important to address the underlying root causes of these conditions and symptoms before you incorporate prebiotic foods," says Zibdeh. Consult with a healthcare provider who's versed in digestive disorders and a dietitian with digestive health experience to help you determine the right balance and rate of introducing prebiotic foods.

Overall, when it comes to prebiotics, "the wider the variety of fibers we feed our gut microbes, the more we ensure they have the energy they need to perform crucial bodily functions," adds Mendez.

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13) Why trust Good Housekeeping?

Valerie Agyeman, R.D, is a women's health dietitian and the host of the Flourish Heights podcast, where she produces science-driven content covering overlooked nutrition, wellness and women’s health topics. She has more than 10 years of nutrition communication, corporate wellness and clinical nutrition experience. Valerie is a trusted expert and regularly appears on broadcats including ABC’s Good Morning Washington, and she is a contributing expert to publications like Women’s Health, The Thirty and Shape.

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Prebiotics are non-digestible carbs that feed the good bacteria in the gut and help probiotics flourish. Our dietitians share great picks to add to your diet.