A Primer on Prebiotics

Renee Korczak PhD. RDN, CSSD, LD

A view from the side of a woman making a salad at a kitchen counter.

Prebiotics can be considered as food or a substrate for beneficial bacteria that reside in your digestive tract. The body can’t digest prebiotics, but certain bacteria can. When bacteria digest or ferment prebiotics, beneficial metabolites known as short-chain fatty acids are produced. Short-chain fatty acids, in turn, can help support a healthy gut and are also supportive of general whole-body health.1 

For example, some of the documented benefits of prebiotics include:

Helps support or maintain the following

  • Healthy gut microflora
  • Bowel habits
  • Nutrient absorption
  • Immune function
  • Satiety (feeling of fullness)2

Some may wonder how prebiotics are different from traditional fiber, since both pass through the digestive system largely undigested. Prebiotics can be selectively utilized by microorganisms in the gut to produce a health benefit, whereas not all fibers have that characteristic. However, it’s important to get both prebiotics and fiber in your diet to help support your gut health and your gut microbiota too. In general, most adults do not meet the recommended amounts of fiber in their diet (25-38 g/day); so it is important to incorporate fiber into your daily meals and snacks.3 It is a bonus if the fiber is also considered a prebiotic too!

Prebiotics are found in a variety of food sources. Some foods that inherently contain prebiotics include onions, garlic, green bananas, chicory root, and Jerusalem artichokes. Prebiotic ingredients may also be added to yogurts, cereals, bread, beverages and to certain infant formulas. For nursing mothers, human milk is an abundant source of prebiotics and can provide an infant with support for a healthy microbial community.

Dietary supplements can also be a source of prebiotics. When purchasing a dietary supplement, check the label to verify that a prebiotic source is included by looking for terms such as Inulin, Chicory fiber, Galactooligosaccharides, Oligofructose, or Fructooligosaccharides. The term “prebiotic” is not always mentioned in the ingredient list, so check for these terms to determine if a prebiotic source exists in the supplement. If you are having trouble identifying a source of prebiotics on a supplement, consult with your healthcare practitioner before use.

Now that you know some prebiotic basics, you might be wondering what a sample one-day meal plan might look like that incorporates prebiotic-containing foods. Take a look at this one-day example to get some ideas.

Other tips to consider when incorporating prebiotics into the diet are: 

  • Start small and work your way up to a goal amount.
  • Consume a variety of prebiotic types.
  • Find foods and beverages that are realistic for you to include in your daily diet. You will have the most success if you choose foods that you enjoy.
  • Make sure that you are tolerating prebiotics well. If not, try decreasing your portion size until your GI system adapts.

*Please note, this meal-plan is not meant to be prescriptive or individualized. It is for reference only. It is recommended to consult your healthcare provider prior to starting any diet regimen.

 

We continue to learn more about prebiotics’ benefits through scientific research. For more information on prebiotics and their benefits, you can visit the International Scientific Association of Probiotics and Prebiotics (ISAPP) or the Global Prebiotic Association (GPA).4,5

References

  1. Carlson J.L., Erickson J.M., Lloyd B, Slavin J.L. Health Effects and Sources of Dietary Fiber Curr Dev Nutr 2018; 2(3): doi: 10.1093/cdn/nzy005.
  2. Hughes R.L., Holscher H.D., Fueling Gut Microbes: A Review of the Interaction between Diet, Exercise and the Gut Microbiota in Athletes Adv Nutr 2021; 2(6): 2190-2215.
  3. Quagliani D, et al. Closing America’s Fiber Intake Gap. Am J Lifestyle Med 2017; 11(1): 80-85
  4. Global Prebiotic Association (GPA). https://prebioticassociation.org/ Accessed June 29, 2022.
  5. International Scientific Association for Probiotics and Prebiotics (ISAPP). https://isappscience.org/. Accessed June 29, 2022