Eating fermented foods is one of the best things you can do for the health of your gut. Researchers are continually finding additional benefits beyond the gastrointestinal (GI) system that these foods can offer.

However, what foods are fermented foods?  Furthermore, which ones are the best fermented foods for athletes?

As an athlete, you are even more likely to benefit, as you place more stress on your body and are more affected by recovery and the strength of your immune system.  Athletes who value food fermentation and regularly incorporate the right foods into their diet can achieve surprising results that go far beyond an improved gut.

In this post, we’re going to dive into how fermented affect your gut and identify the best options to help improve your health and athletic performance. Sit tight as we will also explain how to make your own and what to look for on food labels to know you’re making the best choices.

History of Fermented Foods

As you will see from the list of nine fermented foods below, many of these have been in existence for hundreds and thousands of years. This is because fermentation was an excellent method to preserve foods before refrigerators were commonplace.

When fermentation takes place, specific micro-organisms form that act as preservative acids, and this increases the shelf-life of the food. At the same time, these micro-organisms create an environment that prohibits the growth of pathogens. As a result, fermented foods contain an array of probiotics that are excellent for your gut flora.[1]

How Fermented Foods Affect Your Gut

Apart from helping your gut to maintain a healthy biome, fermented foods are also easier to digest. When you cook vegetables, you break down their cellular structure, which makes them easier to digest. As a result, these foods can become better nourishing foods.

Raw foods, on the other hand, can often be quite indigestible, which makes them greater at cleansing than nourishing. A similar process (as cooked food) occurs when vegetables are fermented. Thus, they also are more digestible and become more of a feeding and nourishing food. This is another reason why people have been fermenting foods for centuries.

Fermented foods also act as chelators. Chelators are small molecules that bind tightly to metal ions such as mercury, lead, aluminum, and others. This means that fermented foods are potent detoxifiers, drawing out many heavy metal toxins from your body. This makes cultured foods outstanding for self-healing.

Even if you don’t currently have issues with your gut, the probiotics in your GI system need to be repopulated regularly. Keeping the gut in balance takes effort and including fermented foods in your diet is an excellent way to assist with this. It doesn’t mean that you need to eat these foods in large amounts. Studies show that just half a cup of fermented vegetables or a portion of yogurt will be great additions to your diet.[2] Eating a variety of fermented foods is a good idea as it will expose your gut to different micro-organisms.

For more in-depth details about the amazing benefits fermented food can provide for your health as well as your athletic performance, check out our post on the 7 Amazing Benefits of Eating Fermented Foods for Athletes. 

The History and Benefits of the 9 Best Fermented Foods

1. Sauerkraut

The word sauerkraut literally means ‘sour cabbage’. While modern literature ascribes this fermented food to the Dutch and Germans, there is evidence that the Chinese were fermenting cabbage in rice wine hundreds of years ago.

No matter who can claim to have ‘invented’ this food, it’s always made with cabbage. The traditional method is to massage salt into cabbage leaves until they release their liquid. These are then fermented in a sealed jar/pot (for an anaerobic process) for a few weeks, depending on the level of fermentation that suits your taste. During this time, the cabbage is submerged in a salty brine. Many bacteria, such as Lactobacillus, help to turn the cabbage into a crunchy condiment.

People who like the idea of DIY fermented foods usually start with sauerkraut or yogurt because they’re relatively simple to make and don’t require specific skills. All you need is finely-shredded cabbage, salt, and a large jar. Once your product is sufficiently fermented, you’ll be able to enjoy it as a salad, or can combine it with many other foods such as mashed potatoes or even scrambled eggs.

If you’re purchasing sauerkraut from a supermarket, make sure that it hasn’t been pasteurized. When heat is applied to food (and this happens with many commercial brands), the beneficial probiotics/bacteria will be damaged, and this then defeats the whole point of eating fermented foods.

Apart from the usual benefits of fermented foods (improving the gut flora and enhancing the immune system), sauerkraut helps produce vitamin C and protects the blood vessels. Cabbage is also a known cure for ulcers.

2. Kimchi

Best Fermenting Foods for Athletes

Clay pots hold fermenting kimchi at Gyeongbokgung Palace in Seoul, South Korea.

You’ll probably have heard of kimchi as it seems to be everywhere these days – even being promoted by famous chefs. It’s become a new trend in healthy eating.

While you’ll easily be able to find it in many supermarkets, the chances are also good that you’ll find it on the menus of some fine-dining establishments.

Sauerkraut is actually a version of kimchi. Kimchi is the name given to Korean fermented vegetables, which are traditional foods and are served at most meals. Although cabbage is widely used, many other vegetables are also fermented, such as cucumbers, radishes, and onions. The foods are usually heavily spiced and herbs are also liberally used, with items such as ginger, garlic, and chili peppers being added for additional taste.

Many health benefits of kimchi have been found so far. These would include weight loss, as it’s been found that kimchi improves blood-sugar control. Other benefits include improvements to cholesterol levels, anti-aging properties, and helping to prevent cancer.[3]

As with sauerkraut, you can add kimchi to healthy foods such as stir-fries and soups, but can also combine this health-boosting food with unhealthier options such as pizza and burgers!

3. Yogurt

The word ‘yogurt’ is actually Turkish, but this food is probably the most well-known of fermented foods as it has spread across the world. Almost any population that kept animals for milk has learned to make yogurt, as an excellent way to keep the milk from spoiling too soon.

Many people make their own yogurt. There are starter kits that can be purchased and these usually contain the types of bacteria that are necessary to start the fermentation process. These cultures would include: Bifidobacterium lactis, Lactobacillus acidophilus, Streptococcus thermophiles etc.

Some of these words might strike fear into your heart because they are reminiscent of medical illnesses, but it shows that bacteria used correctly can be positive for your health. You can add these cultures to milk to start the fermentation process and can achieve results as quickly as simply leaving it overnight. You could even add a spoonful of previous yogurt to milk and achieve the same effect.

Eating yogurt can regulate your cholesterol levels, lower the risk of colorectal cancer, prevent yeast infections, strengthen the immune system, and improve bone health. Yogurt can even improve your moods, while also enhancing your complexion and nourishing your hair!

As an athlete, you’ll be particularly pleased to hear that yogurt will help you bounce back after working out, as it contributes towards repairing damaged muscles and 

Vegan-Almond Yogurt for Athletes

Almond milk yogurt! Seriously, its good.

improving glycogen accrual in muscle cells.[4]

It’s important to note that yogurt is one of the most consumed dairy products in the world and, as a result, there are many commercial brands. Many of these have been exposed to heat through pasteurization (which diminishes the value of all fermented foods) or have additives such as sugar and colorants, which are bad for you.

Look for natural yogurts – ideally from grass-fed cows.  Or, even better, go dairy free and look for cashew, almond, or coconut milk yogurt.  It has a slightly different consistency but you’ll get many of the same benefits including calcium, zinc, vitamins, and probiotics without the negative effects of ingesting dairy.  Be sure to read labels to know exactly what you’re getting.  For more information comparing non-dairy yogurts, check out the article Vegan Yogurts: A Comparative Analysis by Todays Dietitian.

4. Tempeh

A product that’s made from fermented soybeans, tempeh is a ‘patty’ that originates from Indonesia. It’s unlike tofu, which is produced from unfermented soymilk. In fact, tempeh has quite a meaty taste. It’s also packed with probiotics, and has higher protein, vitamin-B, and fiber levels than tofu does.

Tempeh is fermented by a natural culturing process, which is started by adding a ‘tempeh starter’ to soybeans. The ‘tempeh starter’ is basically a mix of live mold which, after a day or two, will turn the soy beans into a cake-like food. It’s packed with probiotics and antioxidants, as well as with many essential nutrients that your body needs.

if you enjoy the nutty taste of mushrooms, the chances are good that you’ll find tempeh appealing. Particularly if you’re a vegetarian, you might even use tempeh as a meat substitute as it’s an excellent meatless source of protein. You can take a slab of tempeh and marinate it, and then put it on the grill, as you would with chicken or a steak. This is one fermented product that doesn’t lose its benefits when cooked. In fact, research shows that it should be heated to get rid of any micro-organisms that could be undesirable. For other ways of eating tempeh, you could add it to a soup or casserole, or even crumble it into a pasta sauce. The flavor is pungent and will add zest to any meal.

Along with its great taste, there are many health benefits, which come from its high probiotic content. It lowers cholesterol, boosts bone health, provides muscle-building protein, and balances blood sugar. Research has also shown that eating tempeh for about 60 days had a significantly positive effect on tuberculosis sufferers. In addition, tempeh may help with menopause symptoms, and may also have anti-cancer properties.[5]

5. Kombucha

This is a tea-based fermented beverage that has been enjoyed for over 2,000 years. Popular in the east, in places like China and Russia, this is another fermented product that has now become highly popular with the health conscious in the west.

This sweetened tea is made by adding specific bacteria and yeast to black or green tea. The tea is then left to ferment for a week or more. If you like your tea sweet, it’s better to have a shorter fermentation process. The longer you ferment the tea, the more likely it will become sour.

If you’re buying this product off the shelf, you should check to see if sugar has been added. Tea that’s been fermented for a while ends up getting a vinegary flavor, so manufacturers often add sugar to make it more palatable, and this should be avoided.

Kombucha is another of the fermented foods that many people prepare at home. During the fermentation process, the bacteria and yeast will form a mushroom-like object on the surface (AKA the scoby! Don’t be afraid if you buy some commerical kombucha from the store and see this floating in your tea. Its actually good for you and should be consumed.) This floating object often on the surface of the tea is why kombucha is sometimes referred to as ‘mushroom tea’. One thing about doing this yourself is that you need to prepare it very carefully because it can become contaminated or over-fermented and this can actually lead to health problems that are sometimes serious. It might be safer to buy a commercial product rather than taking a risk.[6]

Kombucha has outstanding health benefits, which include general detox qualities as well as a reduction of blood pressure. It also is known to provide protection against cancer.  This is particularly true of kombucha made with green tea as it has the same chemical properties, such as polyphenols (strong antioxidants), and therefore has the same benefits.[7] Green tea drinkers are said to have a reduced risk of prostate, breast and colon cancers, so this would also apply to those drinking kombucha made with green tea. Polyphenols are also believed to kill harmful bacteria.[8]

Studies show that those that regularly drink kombucha made with green tea can improve their ability to burn calories, assist better blood sugar control, and improve cholesterol levels. Aficionados of this drink also swear that they have increased energy.[9]

There are possibly even further health benefits. As studies have shown that kombucha improves LDL and HDL cholesterol levels in rats, it may also protect against heart disease.[10] It also improved several diabetes markers in rats because of its ability to regulate blood sugar levels, so may have a similar effect on people.[11]

6. Kefir

Tying down the origins of kefir has proved tricky, but it is generally believed to have come from eastern Europe. Kefir is a type of grain that is made up of live bacteria and yeasts, which look like small, translucent jelly-like orbs.

Basically, kefir is a fermented drink that is most often made by adding these grains to milk. When it’s in the form of a cultured dairy product, it’s not suitable for those who have lactose intolerance symptoms. Fortunately, kefir can also be made with water by adding the grain to a mixture of sugar and water – dried fruit is often added as well.

Most fermented foods help to boost the immune system, and kefir is no exception. In addition, it’s been found to lower cholesterol and also to have anti-carcinogenic properties. Kefir is believed to protect against infection, to help prevent osteoporosis, to aid wound healing, and to assist in detoxifying the body.[12]

7. Miso

Japanese Miso Soybean Paste

Japanese miso soybean paste!

If you’ve visited Japan or are a fan of Japanese food, you’ll have heard of miso. This fermented paste of soybeans with rice or barley is an absolute staple of the Japanese diet. The paste is created through a fermentation process with salt and koji (which is a starter enzyme that breaks down proteins). Unlike sauerkraut and yogurt that can be fermented in a short time, miso is traditionally left to ferment for at least six months – sometimes up to three years! 

Miso has different varieties – and the color usually shows how strong the paste is. White and yellow are milder, while red miso is much saltier and very robust. The Japanese often use the miso paste in soup, but it’s just as likely to be found in stews and even mixed into a salad dressing. If you buy a commercial brand of miso paste, make certain that it is unpasteurized.

Miso helps with overall health of the gut and body, but is also a good source of various B vitamins, as well as vitamins E, K and folic acid. It’s high in salt content, so shouldn’t be eaten in large quantities. Check that the paste is made from organically grown soy as there are genetically modified soybeans available as well. Read the label and make certain that the product is gluten-free.[13]

8. Natto

This is another Japanese food made from fermented soybeans, which is largely a breakfast dish in that country, usually served with miso soup, fish, and rice. Natto, like tofu, miso, and tempeh, is a form of soybean. It is made by soaking soybeans, then boiling them, adding bacteria, and allowing them time to ferment.

The health benefits result from many factors, including the fact that natto creates an enzyme called nattokinase, which produces vitamin K2. Natto is extremely nutritious and is very rich in both macro and micronutrients. It also has important manganese benefits, which can support your bones and joints – very important for an athlete. In addition, natto has the other benefits of many fermented foods, including lowering cancer risks, improving immunity, and lowering levels of inflammation. It’s also considered to be a natural blood thinner, so anyone on a blood thinning medication should avoid eating it.[14]

9. Poi

This starchy food is a staple in Hawaii. It’s purplish in color as it’s made from the taro plant and is slightly fermented. You will often find it served at a Hawaiian luau, usually in the form of a paste. It acts like many other fermented foods in that it aids digestion and helps in the assimilation of nutrients.[15]

A word about Helicobacter pylori (H. pylori)

H. pylori is a type of bacteria that is a major cause of serious gastric disorders such as gastritis, gastro-duodenal ulcers, and even gastric cancer.[16] These germs enter the body and live in your digestive tract. Studies on infected children showed that four weeks of eating yogurt reduced the H. Pylori counts and improved the secretory IgA levels (which indicate improved GI immunity).

Other research showed that kimchi in particular reduced H. pylori levels of a pro-inflammatory enzyme, as well as the tumor necrosis factor alpha (TNF-a).[17]

Where to Buy Fermented Foods

It’s sometimes difficult to know which foods are fermented, as they are not usually labeled this way. A good tip is that ‘pickled’ foods are usually fermented. Also, if food is said to contain probiotics, they are likely fermenting foods. However, while fermented foods are rich in probiotics, not all probiotics are fermented foods, so you’ll need to do a bit of checking and label reading.

You need to be aware that the preparation and packaging of fermented foods is an important consideration as well.

For example, heating can kill the probiotics in fermenting foods, which will make them no different from other foods. Flavors are also added to products, such as yogurt or kefir, to make them more palatable to the western user. Certainly, if you’re not used to the taste of fermented foods you might find them rather strange or sour.

However, by eating a modified version of these foods that are more acceptable taste-wise, you could fall into the trap of eating ‘good’ foods that have become laden with harmful additives. If these foods are pre-packaged, such as add-water miso soup, you might again be missing out on the best benefits of these foods.

Likewise, make certain that the sauerkraut you’re eating is properly fermented. Sometimes sauerkraut is made with vinegar, which isn’t the traditional method. To be sure, look for sauerkraut made correctly from cabbage, water and salt – there shouldn’t be any vinegar on the label.

Final Word

If you’re going to try fermenting foods at home or introducing fermented foods into your diet, it’s a good idea to do this gradually. The taste is often unfamiliar and you don’t want to turn yourself off too quickly.  Keep in mind the health benefits and give yourself time to warm up to the taste.  Remember the first time you tried coffee?  Start slowly, perhaps even in combination with other foods such as with some sauerkraut on grass-fed burger.

It’s been reported by those who specialize in these foods that people often make sour or crazy faces when they first eat something like sauerkraut, but a few days later they feel the necessity to eat more.  Perhaps their body appreciated the added gut and immune support secretly nudging our brains to have more? Point is, we often need to listen to our body. Take your time, and gradually you’ll find that you might really enjoy to the point that you may have cravings, for these unfamiliar new tastes.

It’s important to add that you would probably benefit from eating fermented foods even if you don’t have problems with digestion (although many athletes do). As fermented foods also have a positive effect on muscle recovery and many other aspects that aid athletic performance, it’s definitely worth the effort of trying to incorporate them into your diet. The immune-boosting probiotics and the improvements to your overall well-being will make you glad you included them on your shopping list.

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