Fermented Foods – do they live up to the hype

Born into an Eastern European family (we’re Polish), my family and I immigrated to Australia, dubbed ‘the lucky country’ and ‘the land of milk and honey’, a month before my fifth birthday. However, it wasn’t until I started Primary School that I began to notice just how different our diet actually was.

While my friends had lunch orders or vegemite sandwiches for school lunch, I’d have pickle sandwiches. I was mortified by the smell that came out of my lunch box at lunchtime.

While my friends had meat and three veg for dinner, we’d have kefir with potatoes, butter and salt and sauerkraut. My mum even went as far as pickling her own beetroots and making a fermented beetroot drink. “Because it’s good for you”, she’d say as she forced us to drink it. Maybe she was onto something.

Fermented foods like sauerkraut, pickles, kefir, kombucha and kimchi have unquestionably come in to vogue over recent years. Walk in to any trendy health food shop and you will see shelves lined with these foods. But do they really stack up? Or is it just hype?

Gut health and athletes

Most athletes typically only think about their gut health when something goes wrong, when gut issues cost them a spot or two in a race or when they are bee-lining it to the nearest tree during a training session. However, as new evidence emerges (or as my mum likes to say – “science is finally catching up!”) athletes would be wise to pay attention to their gut health every day, rather than only when things go wrong.

shutterstock_389172379_amendedGut issues, such as gut cramps and diarrhoea, are common among athletes, especially endurance athletes, and can impair performance and recovery. The three main causes of gut issues are physiological, mechanical, and nutritional. For example, during intense training or exercise there is a reduction in blood flow to the gut, which increases the likelihood of gut issues. This happens particularly if an athlete is hypohydrated (if you’re not drinking enough!).

Training the gut (that is, practicing your race day nutrition strategies in training) helps to minimise this gut discomfort by guaranteeing rapid gastric emptying and absorption of water and nutrients under stres
sful conditions. Moreover, being adequately hydrated will also help to prevent and minimise the chances of gut issues in training and competition.

While it’s important for athletes to use and practice strategies that will minimise gut discomfort in competition, it’s just as important, if not more so, for athletes to follow daily nutrition principles to ensure general gut health.

The gut is inhabited by diverse species of bacteria (the more diverse the better!) that are important to optimal immune function and that protect the body against infection and inflammation. It is well known that a disruption of the microbial flora is linked with infection, autoimmune diseases and cancer. Evidence also suggests that gut bacteria can help to prevent the immunosuppressive effects of intense exercise. So, athletes who want to stay fit and healthy, and avoid catching the latest winter viral plague need to pay attention to their gut health.

Furthermore, recent evidence is now starting to show support for the connection between gut health and weight management. So, athletes who want to achieve a certain race weight or who have a desired body composition goal should also pay attention to their gut health.

Foods that support gut health

Outside of supplements such as Inner Health Plus, the first food that comes to mind when thinking probiotics (the good bacteria) and gut health is yoghurt.

Yoghurt is a well-known source of probiotics. However, try to steer clear of sugar-laden varieties and opt for plain, natural and/or Greek style yoghurt. A brand I like to recommend is Chobani. Chobani yoghurts are generally higher in protein and lower in fat and sugar compared to other varieties. If plain, natural yoghurt doesn’t sound too appealing, flavour it with frozen berries, nuts, chia seeds, honey or ground cinnamon, or add it to your favourite smoothie. Yoghurt is great as a snack between meals if you’re hungry and also a great post training recovery snack.

Don’t like yoghurt? Not a problem. Yoghurt is not the only probiotic option.

Kefir, a fermented milk drink made by fermenting milk with kefir grains comprised of yeast and gut-friendly bacteria, is also a great source of probiotics. In fact it tends to have more probiotics than yoghurt! A brand of kefir I love is Babushka Kefir (babushkaskefir.com.au). Babushka Kefir is available online or in your favourite health food store. But if drinking fermented drinks aren’t appealing, don’t worry – Babushka Kefir comes in all forms including yoghurt, frozen yoghurt, probiotic cheese and probiotic smoothies. The choices are endless!

Other food sources of probiotics that are great for gut health include sauerkraut (fermented cabbage), kimchi (a traditional Korean dish) and the increasingly popular Kombucha (a fermented tea).
You can buy Kombucha from almost any super market these days and it comes in a variety of flavours. My favourite is Remedy Kombucha ginger and lemon – it tastes delicious! Kombucha a great alternative to juice or soft drinks, especially if you feel like drinking something flavoured.

If fermented cabbage doesn’t sound like something you would choose for dinner, make sure you try the recipe below before you make up your mind.

Sauerkraut Salad

Ingredients 

1 jar Polish sauerkraut

1 carrot, grated

1 onion, chopped

Parsley, chopped

Caraway seeds (these are a great source of iron, copper, potassium, manganese, selenium, zinc and magnesium)

Extra Virgin Olive Oil

Method

Place approximately two tablespoons of sauerkraut into a mixing bowl. Mix in the grated carrot, chopped onion and parsley. Sprinkle caraway seeds as desired, to taste. Drizzle Extra Virgin Olive oil and mix in. Serve and enjoy!

This salad is typically served with mashed potato.

What about Prebiotics?

But it’s not all about the probiotics. Prebiotics and resistant starch are also important for gut health. Prebiotics work in conjunction with probiotics to promote the growth and function of good bacteria in the gut. Food sources of prebiotics include onions, leeks, celery, green vegetables, bananas, garlic, wheat bran, rye, barley and raw oats. Nuts and nut skins are also a great prebiotic.

Resistant starch, is also a powerful prebiotic (food for gut bacteria). It’s a type of carbohydrate that resists digestion – it bypasses the small intestine and is fermented in the large intestine. Resistant starch is found in a range of foods, including legumes, lentils, beans and whole grains.img_9954-copy

How much should I eat?

Variety is key here! In general, if you eat a varied diet and aim to include food sources of both probiotics and prebiotics once or twice per day, you’ll be on the right track. When I’m working with athletes I’ll typically recommend one serve of natural/Greek yoghurt daily, about 30g nuts each day and at least half a plates worth of vegetables at lunch and dinner. I’ll also typically recommended adequate serves of whole grains, legumes and lentils for each athlete.
Unless you have a known food allergy or intolerance, it’s important to avoid cutting out whole foods and food groups unnecessarily. This might result in a poor intake of foods that are great to keep your gut healthy.

In short..

Whether you’re an athlete preparing for a race and you want to minimise your chances of gut issues during the event, or if you’re an athlete wanting to support your immune system to prevent winter colds and flus, or if you’re an athlete wanting to achieve a certain body composition goal, don’t forget about your gut. Your health starts in your gut! A healthy gut is your key to wellbeing and problem free racing.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Margaret Mielczarek

Margaret Mielczarek is the deputy editor at Australian Triathlete Magazine and writes the web series 'Shenanigans of a Deputy 2.0'. She is a passionate age-group triathlete and four-time Ironman finisher - currently in training for Ironman number five!

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