Prebiotics and Probiotics – Are They Worth It?

Prebiotics and probiotics have been around forever. The foods we eat – yogurts, fermented foods and much, much more all contain varying amounts of beneficial bacteria and foods that support them. Over the past several decades, as we have improved our understanding of the human gut and how it affects overall health and metabolism, probiotics (bacteria containing foods and drinks) and prebiotics (matter that promote these bacteria to flourish) have been touted as the solution to a number of ailments from excess weight to intestinal disease and more.

But Do They Work and Are They Worth It?

Pre-and probiotic products are marketed heavily and as such carry a similarly hefty price tag. A small bottle of probiotics can cost upwards of $10, $20 or even $30 with the promise that it will improve a host of issues. Following, we will try to separate the truth from myth and offer some guidance on improving gut health.

The Case for Probiotics

It stands to reason that if:

  1. our guts are made of millions of strains of healthy bacteria and
  2. when we eat poorly and take antibiotics when unnecessary we can disrupt our bacterial ecosystem known as the micro biome

Then refilling it with healthy bacteria (probiotics) should get us back to normal. After all, we need those good bacteria and ingesting them should be beneficial.

Further, there are dozens of extremely healthy foods, especially those that are fermented, that are low in calories and relatively nutrient dense. These foods, if substituted for processed foods may not only rebalance our gut health but help us lose weight as well. Many of these foods are delicious to eat.

The Case Against Commercial Probiotics

Unfortunately, while the concept of a probiotic makes sense in theory, the practice is not as simple. We don’t know, with any accuracy, the composition of our gut’s microbiome. We just know that bacteria exist and work harmoniously to keep our metabolism humming. We also know that these bacteria can be neutralized and sterilized if we eat continue to eat the highly processed foods that, unfortunately, we have become accustomed to in the modern diet. Ultimately, while probiotics in many of the healthy foods we eat don’t hurt us, the idea that there is a commercial probiotic supplement that can mimic the gut’s my microbiome is simply unproven.

Further, the cost of pre-and probiotics is staggering. Anyone who routinely takes the supplements can pay tens or even hundreds of dollars per month, ultimately with no guarantee behind its efficacy. While it is unlikely that these pre-and probiotics are dangerous, their efficacy can certainly be called into question. As a reminder, supplements are not regulated by the FDA and some rely on questionable data for their marketing claims.

Lastly, but certainly not least, is that many probiotic-containing food and drinks are less healthy than you may think. There is no question that we have a sweet tooth, and some probiotics have plenty of sugar added. As a result, whatever benefit you may be receiving from the probiotics themselves may be more than offset by the higher calorie and sugar content of the product.

The Bottom Line and What to Do Next

Colon health is directly related to our overall health. Those of us suffering from excess weight or obesity are also less likely to have a normal gut microbiome, making weight maintenance and weight loss that much more difficult. However, probiotics in and of themselves are not the answer. If there is a probiotics food or drink that you enjoy and can afford, while being healthy for you, we don’t see a reason to avoid it. However, bear in mind that it may not have a significant beneficial effect on your health or weight. Rather, focus on improving your diet and exercise, increasing water intake and getting the appropriate amount of protein and fiber every day. Making small changes such as eliminating sodas and other high sugar foods and drinks, replacing processed foods with home cooked meals and eating fresh fruits and vegetables are all proven to contribute positively to your gut and overall health.

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