There are a lot of claims about how probiotics can help you lose weight and improve your health. With all the information out there, it’s tough to separate health fact from fiction. So what exactly are probiotics? Most importantly, can you use them to promote weight loss and better health?
Probiotics are actually bacteria (or fungi) that are good for your health, and they are literally everywhere: in the air we breathe, the water we drink, some of the foods we eat, on our skin, inside our bodies, and most other places you can think of. You usually hear about harmful bacteria that can cause infections and diseases, like E. coli and Staphylococcus, which causes staph infections, but most bacteria are actually not harmful – and many are even beneficial.
Keeping a balance of all kinds of bacteria inside your intestines helps you stay healthy and can help you maintain your weight. It turns out that these “good” bacteria can produce vitamins, reduce inflammation, help your body produce insulin, ward off infections, promote fullness and regulate appetite, and maybe even help you lose weight. There are different ways to develop a healthy gut, but since probiotics are naturally all around us, should you buy probiotic supplements to help shed some pounds? Or can you get probiotics naturally through the foods you eat?
If you’re thinking about taking probiotic supplements to support your weight loss journey, there’s actually very little evidence that these supplements are effective for weight loss. However, a few evidence-based cases show that probiotic supplements might improve your overall health. Probiotic supplements may help alleviate travelers’ diarrhea, help you recover healthy gut bacteria after taking antibiotics, relieve irritable bowel symptoms, or shorten the length of common illnesses like colds. If you take probiotic supplements, some studies suggest that they should contain at least 5 billion CFUs (colony-forming units) per dose to be effective and should include various Lactobacillus strains, as well as Saccharomyces (yeast) and Bifidobacterium.
So what about getting probiotics through the foods you eat? There’s some evidence that people have seen positive weight loss results from consuming probiotics in foods like yogurt. But there’s something with more evidence linked to positively affecting your health and weight loss over time than probiotics: prebiotics. Unlike probiotic supplements, prebiotics are absolutely necessary to maintain a healthy population of intestinal bacteria because they provide the food and habitat for these bacteria. Think of your gut as a garden; the probiotics would be the seeds, while prebiotics would be the soil, fertilizer, sun, and rain.
You can get prebiotics through whole plant foods. But, while all whole plant foods contain prebiotic fiber, only a few have a large variety of the fibers that help improve gut health and may even promote weight loss. These include:
Even if you don’t like these foods, other fruits, vegetables, and whole-plant starches can help promote weight loss – so you can add anything from beans, sweet potatoes, strawberries, spinach, or more to your nutrition plan. Unfortunately, yogurt doesn’t contain prebiotics, but the probiotics in yogurt may be one reason why it’s associated with long-term fat loss.
We now know that intestinal bacteria start to change within two days of beginning a healthy diet with plant foods, and a variety of good gut bacteria is associated with losing excess fat. While probiotic supplements largely die in your stomach before they can be effective, healthy food delivers the prebiotic plant fibers right to where they need to be to make natural probiotics grow. And while specific evidence is lacking, heavily processed foods may damage healthy gut bacteria and lead to weight gain – not just because of calories and a lack of fiber, but also because they often contain preservatives, which can actively hurt healthy bacteria.
Eating probiotic foods or taking probiotic supplements for certain conditions might help your weight loss journey. Still, there’s no replacement for including whole plant foods in your nutrition plan to stay healthy and maintain an optimal weight.