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Are Probiotics the Answer to Excess Weight?

array of probiotic food in jars on counter, pickles, kimchi

In a world seemingly chock-full of fad diets that don’t work and may even cause health issues, we often turn to natural or holistic remedies to help us lose weight. One such hope has been probiotics. Analyzing the name tells us what they do – these foods and drinks contain live cultures of microorganisms to promote the proliferation of good bacteria in the gut.

Now, we have been conditioned to think that bacteria are harmful. And there certainly are bacteria that make us sick. However, the opposite is also true. Our gut microbiome comprises trillions of bacteria – far more than the number of cells in our bodies. These bacteria work overtime to process our foods and keep us healthy. However, years, if not decades, of mistreatment by eating highly processed foods and overuse of antibiotics has changed the delicate balance of this microbiome in many of us and consequently has been implicated in reduced insulin sensitivity, amongst other issues.

Probiotics to the Rescue?

Are probiotics the answer to this microbiome imbalance? The short answer is probably not. While live cultures introduce healthy bacteria into the gut, we don’t know the exact makeup of the bacteria within our bodies. Therefore, probiotics do not necessarily offer the appropriate balance of bacteria to reset the gut. One of the reasons bariatric surgeries, particularly gastric bypass, can improve insulin resistance is likely due to the surgery’s function on the small intestine. By bypassing this structure, it is posited that the gut microbiome may be prodded to reset to its optimal state. In other words, no matter how hard we try, the body has to regain homeostasis, and there’s no specific way to reconstitute the proper bacterial balance in our guts.

Are Probiotics Bad?

The short answer is that probiotics are likely harmless and, in some cases, may be beneficial, especially if consumed as part of a nutritious diet. However, some probiotic drinks and supplements can be costly, so patients must reconcile the possibility of these supplements being ineffective and their cost. On the other hand, if the probiotic foods or supplements are sourced from a reputable manufacturer, there is not likely nothing wrong with taking them in moderation. Just don’t expect immediate or dramatic results.

Many probiotic foods are also very healthy, and while they may not perfectly rebalance gut bacteria, they may promote some excellent eating habits. For example, low-fat, low-sugar Greek yogurt can introduce beneficial bacteria if it has live cultures while giving you lots of protein with relatively few calories. Fermented vegetables, like sauerkraut and kimchi, can be rich in fiber and vitamins. Just be mindful of processing in pasteurization, which can eliminate active bacteria.

You may have heard of kombucha, the fermented tea drink that has taken over grocery store shelves. Some research shows the benefits of kombucha, but it is often an ingredient in sugary beverages, negating many of the benefits.

Other probiotic foods that may benefit you include buttermilk, some cheeses, pickles, and miso. All of these, eaten appropriately as part of a low saturated fat and low sugar diet, can be very healthy. Whether the bacteria have anything to do with the health benefits is secondary to an improved diet.

Better Alternatives to Probiotics

When we discuss why our Microbiome is so off-kilter, it usually revolves around high sugar and highly processed foods. These sugar and sodium compounds destroy many good bacteria in our guts. By eliminating highly processed food and reducing the amount of added sugar in our diet, we go a long way in rebalancing gut health. Sometimes, what we cut out is as important, if not more important, than what we put in. Methodically, eliminating high sugar, high sodium, and high saturated fat foods and speaking to your primary care physician about alternatives to antibiotics when you are sick can be a great way to start the process toward a healthier gut.