Food as Medicine: Prebiotic Foods

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What are prebiotics?

Certain plant-based food-derived substances that help feed the good bacteria in your child’s gut are called prebiotics. Prebiotics are food for the healthy or “good” gut bacteria that live within the GI (gastrointestinal) tract. Although all prebiotics are fiber, not all fibers are prebiotics.

What is the benefit?

  • When healthy bacteria break down prebiotics, they get energy for themselves. This increases their chance of survival in the gut and the by-products they produce are helpful to us.
  • A diet high in prebiotic foods supports the health of the intestines. It does this by improving digestion, supporting the immune system, and helping absorption of nutrients.
  • Fiber can also help your child feel full for longer after meals and regulate metabolism. This can promote a healthy weight.
  • Foods that naturally contain prebiotic fibers are also good sources of vitamins, minerals, and other nutrients that provide many health benefits.

Are there any risks?

  • Some people, especially people who already have GI symptoms, may notice increased gas, bloating, or mild cramping. You might notice that there is a limit to how much or how often your child tolerates these foods.
  • Some prebiotic ingredients, such as resistant starch, wheat dextrin, and polydextrose are less likely to cause symptoms. Others, such as inulin, sometimes cause symptoms, especially when used in large amounts.
  • If your child is following a low FODMAP diet, talk to their healthcare provider before using prebiotics.

How do we start? How much is needed?

  • A fiber goal for most children is the child’s age plus 5 to10 grams of fiber. For example, the goal for a 6-year-old child would be 11 to 16 grams of fiber per day. It is recommended that at least 5 grams per day is in the form of prebiotic fiber.
  • It is best for prebiotics to come from whole foods. However, your healthcare provider may recommend a prebiotic supplement as well.
  • When increasing the amount of prebiotic fiber in the diet, remember to start with a small amount (1/4 usual serving) and gradually increase portions and number of servings per day. After a while, see if you can include prebiotic foods with each meal.

What foods contain prebiotics?

  • Prebiotics are naturally present in many plant-based foods. This includes certain fruits, vegetables, beans, and whole grains.
  • Prebiotic ingredients are often added to processed foods like cereals, breads, and snack foods. Terms you might see on food labels include: inulin, wheat dextrin, acacia gum, psyllium, polydextrose, GOS (galactooligosaccharides), FOS (fructooligosaccharides), and TOS (transgalactooligosaccharides).
  • Try to eat a variety of natural and fortified prebiotic foods.

Here are some foods that naturally contain prebiotics, and some ways to try them with your family.

  • Almonds
    • Whole almonds, almond butter, baked goods made with almond flour.
  • Bananas
    • Fresh, added to cereal, banana bread, in a smoothie, blended frozen banana “ice cream.”
    • Dried or freeze dried for snack.
  • Whole grain wheat
    • Breakfast cereals, whole wheat pasta, bread, crackers, tortillas.
  • Whole grain corn
    • Corn kernels on or off the cob, popcorn, polenta/grits, tortillas, tortilla chips.
  • Whole grain rye and barley
    • Look for whole grain flours as ingredients in multigrain breads, cereals, crackers
    • Add whole grain barley to soups and stews; serve instead of rice.
    • Serve barley kasha as a hot cereal for breakfast.
  • Flax
    • Add ground seeds to oatmeal, smoothies, baked goods (can be used as an egg substitute).
  • Soy
    • Tofu, soymilk, tempeh, miso.
  • Cabbage
    • Sauerkraut, cabbage slaw.
    • Add to soup, stir fry, or use as a wrap instead of a tortilla.
  • Raw garlic
    • Add to fresh dressings, salads, guacamole, salsa, use to flavor olive oil.
  • Raw/cooked onion
    • Add raw/cooked to sandwiches. Use in soups, stews, cooked sauces, mix with meats.
    • Add to fresh dressings, salads, guacamole, salsa, use to flavor olive oil.
  • Jicama
    • Cut in slices or sticks and serve with other raw vegetables.
    • Dice and add to tacos and salads or mix with fresh fruit.
  • Peas
    • Add to pasta sauces, soups, and salads. Blend with lemon, garlic, and oil to make pea hummus.
    • Puree with herbs and oil to make pesto for pasta.
    • Steam until soft for a great finger food for babies.
  • Eggplant
    • Marinate slices in vinaigrette salad dressing and grill or roast in oven, stir into pasta sauce.
    • Roast whole eggplant and mash to make a spread.
  • Artichoke
    • Steam and serve with butter.
    • Add artichoke hearts to salads or sandwiches.
  • Asparagus
    • Grate or slice thinly and add to salad. Serve on raw vegetable tray.
  • Honey, agave
    • Honey should not be given to babies less than 12 months old.
    • Choose locally harvested and organic when you can.
    • Add to herbal tea, mix into salad dressings, drizzle over hot cereal or fresh fruit with granola and yogurt.
  • Oat
    • Oatmeal, granola and granola bars, oatmeal cookies, breakfast cereal.
    • Replace part of the flour in recipes with oat flour (you can make it in a food processor).
    • Add to fruit smoothies.
  • Raw leafy greens: dandelion, leak, endive, radicchio (chicory)
    • Cut into very thin strips and mix with salad.
    • Add sweet fruits and vegetables, salty seeds or cheese, vinaigrette.
    • Fill endive leaves with dips and proteins (like chicken/egg/bean salad).
    • Try radicchio in kimchi.
  • Beans
    • Mix into chili, add to tacos and burritos, add to salads.
    • Bean flours are used to make pasta, crackers, and chips.
    • Blend with oil and flavorings to make a dip/spread or mix with hummus.
    • Make soups (black bean, lentil, or pasta fagioli).
    • Use black beans in place of egg and oil in brownies.

Additional resources

November 2022