Over the course of your lifelong search for the holy grail of diets, you’ve likely gone vegan, left vegan, eaten like a caveman, eschewed bread, embraced gluten-free, and experimented with several outrageous fitness regimens like mixing Zumba with a green juice detox or Paleo with a dash of raw foodism. If, after all that, you’re still searching for that perfect balance of nutrition, maybe it’s time to get on a fermented food kick.
The uninitiated need not worry if the thought of eating fermenting foods sounds kind of gross. After all, it does involve the process of decomposition, which undoubtedly sparks images of choking down something you would put in the compost bin before you put it in your mouth.
That analogy, however, is not even remotely accurate. Let’s spin it like this: A fermented food diet involves eating food that is already in the process of digesting itself, which is a fantastic thing for your tummy. This natural development breaks down food, creating new nutrients and beneficial living bacteria that you would otherwise not be privy to. That living bacteria not only helps your tummy digest, but also serves as a natural preservative, which benefits your immune and nervous system on top of improving your intestinal flora, which are the various good bacteria that live in the intestinal tract and help break down certain foods for absorption.
In fact, ancient cultures have been using fermentation as their primary method of food preservation for thousands of years.
“Foods were fermented out of necessity since refrigeration systems weren’t yet invented,” explains Heather Haxo Phillips, accomplished raw vegan chef at specialty cooking school Raw Bay Area.
Philips, who regularly teaches workshops on how to ferment things like kefir, kombucha, and kraut, adds that while the primarily purpose was preservation, the process also led to foods being “deliberately cultured to promote the growth of beneficial bacteria and yeasts.”
Read on for some compelling reasons to incorporate these beneficial eats into your diet, as well as where to find them and how to make them yourself.
Pickle For Vigor
Modern scientists and holistic healers agree that fermented foods have myriad health-promoting benefits. And the truth is we already eat plenty of fermented things in our diet, including cheese, wine, chocolate, beer, cider, chocolate, salami, miso, and much more. These foods can keep illness at bay and manage digestive processes within the body because they naturally boost your intake of healthy bacteria. Many people who experience irritable bowel syndrome, colitis, and other health issues have reported immediate benefits from adding fermented foods to their diets.
“Fermentation actually starts the digestive process of the food for your body so it makes the food easier to digest and the nutrients more readily available,” explains Stacey Antine, M.S., R.D., founder of HealthBarn USA and author of Appetite for Life. “Kraut and kimchi for instance, are chock full of nutrients, enzymes, and live and active cultures that boost the growth of ‘good’ bacteria in your gut and help to boost the immune system.”
Fermented Foods Of Lactose
In this day and age, there are loads of foods and substances that destroy our intestinal flora: antibiotics, antibacterial soaps, commercial meats containing antibiotic residues, chlorinated water, and a diet high in processed and packaged foods are just a few.
Rich in lactic acid and lactic acid-producing bacteria, fermented foods have a natural “scrubbing” hydrogen-peroxide effect, adds Marcella Silva, who is a chef, restaurateur, grower, and holistic healer in West Los Angeles.
Basically, the lactobacillus bacteria that’s involved in lactofermentation breaks down sugars and proteins, resulting in the production of lactic acid. That lactic acid inactivates the putrefying (“bad”) bacteria, and allows good, healthful bacteria to flourish, thereby preserving food for days and even months, adds by Dr. David Ramaley in an his article “Benefits of Fermentation.”
Culture The Blues Away
A better bathroom experience isn’t all that’s in store from incorporating fermented foods into your diet, which may actually help to control or even eliminate symptoms of depression. According to a 2011 study published in Neurogastroenterology & Motility, mice that lack gut bacteria were found to behave differently from normal mice, engaging in what the scientists conducting the study referred to as “high-risk behavior.”
Many probiotic strains found in common fermented foods such as sauerkraut, kefir, kimchi, and yogurt produce neurochemicals, including dopamine, aceytlcholine, GABA, norepinephrine, and serotonin. And where do neurochemicals come from? The gut!
“When you consider the fact that the gut-brain connection is recognized as a basic tenet of physiology and medicine, and that there’s no shortage of evidence of gastrointestinal involvement in a variety of neurological diseases, it’s easy to see how the balance of gut bacteria can play a significant role in your psychology and behavior as well,” says Dr. Joseph Mercola in his article “Beware – Bacteria Growing In Your Gut Can Influence Your Behavior.”
Keep Your Chiclets
The proliferation of harmful bacteria can lead to cavities, halitosis, gingivitis, and other oral ailments. The lactic acid found in food that’s been fermented keeps these harmful elements in check. The Eskimos, for instance, eat a diet diet that includes loads of fermented foods, and they’ve been proven to have very low rates of heart disease, which has recently been linked to gum health.
Save The Green
Fermenting foods is great for the environment and your wallet, too. Remember that the process itself is eco-friendly, as it doesn’t require any equipment or electricity.
“The planet benefits when foods are fermented rather than thrown out,” Phillips says. “I use excess vegetables from my garden to make fermented sauerkrauts and kimchi, rather than throwing the vegetables away.”
Silva adds that “it could be that in our growing sterile world where everything is sterilized, pasteurized, homogenized, and antibiotic, this is our true biotic crusader and one of the best, cheapest, and most convenient health foods.”
Culture, Pickle, And Brew
To enjoy new flavors and expand your taste buds’ horizons, it’s best to implement different variations of fermented foods into your diet. Phillips suggests eating fermented foods in small amounts and to try lots of different varieties to learn what you like.
“For example, try some kefir in your morning smoothies, yogurt-cucumber salad with your lunch, kombucha as an afternoon beverage, tempeh as a sandwich, and sauerkraut on your evening salad.”
Moreover, you may want to research other cultures’ recipes.
“It’s important to incorporate these foods into your diet by making the recipes that are specific to the culture, otherwise the flavors don’t work so well to create a good food experience,” Antine notes.
You can also connect with neighbors and friends by having a fermenting get-together. Make wine, beer, cheese, bread, miso, soy sauce, sauerkraut, water kefir, kimchi, yogurt, milk kefir, and tons of other delicious nibbles you wouldn’t typically consider party fare.
Providing both function and fun, it seems to us that fermentation is a win-win.
Photo by Corrie Mahr/Flickr.