Not all bacteria are harmful, some of them are actually very important for our health. This includes probiotics, which are well known for aiding gut health.
Many people take probiotics in supplement form. This is a great way to ensure you’re getting adequate amounts. However, you can also add probiotic-foods to your diet.
The problem is that not all probiotic-rich foods are low-carb. This article discusses the health benefits of probiotics and the top probiotic foods you can eat on a low carb diet.
What Are Probiotics?
Probiotics are the bacteria living in the digestive tract, also referred to as “gut flora” or “gut microbiota.” They help us digest and absorb our food better and even fight off disease (1).
Most of the bacteria in our GI tract is found in the large intestine and in the small intestine; the stomach is too acidic for most bacteria to survive there (with a few exceptions).
Other parts of the human body also contain bacteria (both harmful and beneficial) but most of it is found in the intestines.
Why Probiotics Are Important?
Making sure that our gut bacteria is in a good condition is an important step towards maintaining optimal digestive health, and, as a result, our general health and immunity are also improved.
Two of the most popular ways to do that are to take probiotic supplements, and to simply eat foods that are rich in probiotic bacteria.
In some instances, our gut microbiota can take a hit. For example, if you have recently suffered from diarrhea or if you need to take antibiotics for a bacterial infection.
The antibiotics will (hopefully) kill off the bacteria for which they were intended, but they will also wipe out a big portion of the good bacteria from your digestive tract, which will lead to a worsened digestion and health. This is why doctors often prescribe or at least advise to take probiotics together with antibiotics.
Probiotic supplements are widely available on the market. However, there are plenty of tasty foods that contain live cultures and that are extremely beneficial for the gut flora.
Practically all of them are quite low in carbs, too, so you could have them even if you’re following a low-carb or a ketogenic diet!
While some are slightly higher in carbs, you can fit them in your daily macros from time to time, and the effects on your gut health will be very positive.
The Benefits Of Probiotic Foods
Probiotics, and probiotic foods, in particular, have a number of benefits, related not only to the health of your gut but also to your overall health.
Here are some of their benefits:
#1. Improved gut health
The bacteria that live in your intestines is considered to be of two main types: harmful and friendly.
Usually, these two types of bacteria coexist in an equilibrium of a sort, friendly bacteria helping control “bad” bacteria.
Sometimes this balance is disturbed, however, this can be the result of an illness (especially infections affecting the GI tract), antibiotics, unhealthy diet, and more (2).
The consequences can range from worsened immunity to digestive problems and allergies, among others.
Probiotics help restore the balance between these two types of bacteria, controlling the overgrowth of harmful bacteria and helping “good” bacteria colonies re-establish themselves (3).
#2. Relief from diarrhea
Diarrhea can have many different causes, and can also be a symptom of the worsened condition of friendly bacteria, for example, after taking antibiotics.
Travelers’ diarrhea is a condition related to being exposed to new, uncommon strains of bacteria during a trip abroad.
For many people, it takes from a few days up to a week to get used to an unfamiliar cuisine and probiotics can help speed up this process and provide relief. So next time you travel, look specifically for the local fermented foods!
#3. Strong and healthy immune system
Probiotics can help regulate the function of immune cells, in turn, protect your body against illness (6).
They seem to be particularly beneficial as far as respiratory and urinary tract infections are concerned.
Perhaps surprisingly, probiotics can even help lessen the severity of certain allergic reactions (which are, in fact, a response of the immune system to stimuli that it recognizes as hostile even if they aren’t), and also prevent eczema from occurring in children (7, 8).
Nevertheless, the link between those two is not yet well understood and more research is needed.
#4. Protection against inflammation and type 2 diabetes
A strong, healthy, diverse gut microbiota seems to be a factor in controlling chronic low-grade inflammation, and, as a result, in lowering the risk for developing type 2 diabetes and insulin resistance later in life (9, 10).
A low-carb diet is already very beneficial in helping control blood sugar levels. If you combine it with consuming probiotic foods, the risk of suffering metabolic diseases, such as type 2 diabetes, is likely even lower.
Research shows that probiotics can also be very beneficial in controlling the symptoms of some autoimmune disorders, especially ulcerative colitis, by reducing inflammation (11).
What are the best ways to get some probiotics from your diet, though?
Supplementing with them is one way, but there are many probiotic foods that will also do wonders for your gut and for your general health.
Let’s look into what these foods are!
A List of Probiotic Rich Foods for Low-Carb and Keto Diet
Fermented foods, in general, are excellent probiotics, although not all of them contain live cultures.
For example, wine, beer, soy sauce, and sourdough bread, although fermented, go through additional processing that is intended to kill the live bacteria (for example, filtering, baking, etc…).
There are a number of fermented foods that contain beneficial bacteria and are excellent probiotics. They are definitely much more diverse than some popular probiotic yogurt brands (which are actually not a great choice, in its flavored and sweetened variations, as it contains lots of sugar).
Here is a list of probiotic fermented foods that are also low in carbohydrates.
Note: Some of them are excellent for both low carb diet and keto diets, while others might not be recommended for a strict keto.
Kimchi is a side dish made out of different vegetables, most commonly of napa cabbage, radishes and/or carrots, fermented in a spicy sauce.
It’s a staple in Korean cuisine. If you’ve ever been to a Korean restaurant, you’ve likely had kimchi there.
You can actually make homemade kimchi, too! There are many recipes for it online, and it’s not a very complicated process. Apart from that, it’s also widely available in Korean or Asian supermarkets in bigger cities.
When buying it, opt for kimchi that is sold refrigerated, that’s the one that contains live cultures. The other one has been pasteurized and therefore contains no probiotics (it’s still very tasty, of course, just won’t have the same benefit).
You’d need to check the label for the exact macros, but in general, a 100 g serving (3.5 oz) will give you around 15 to 20 calories and 2 to 5 g net carbs, plus some fiber.
When buying kimchi for keto, you need to make sure to read the label carefully and avoid non-keto ingredients such as sugar, vegetable oil, and flour.
#2. Unsweetened Yogurt
Yogurt (including Greek yogurt) is one of the best probiotic foods out there, and definitely among the most well-known ones.
It contains different types of bacteria, such as Lactobacillus bulgaricus, Lactobacillus acidophilus, Bifidobacterium, and others.
Not all yogurt on the market contains live bacteria, and not all of the bacteria contained is of the beneficial type (it’s not harmful either, some of it is just neutral), so check the label for more information on that.
Greek yogurt, similarly to regular yogurt, is also made by fermenting milk, and also typically has live bacteria in it, although not always. For specific information on that, check the label or the manufacturer’s website.
Always opt for unsweetened yogurt without any flavors in order to not go over your carbs. In addition to that, you should check the label for the exact carb content, because it will vary per brand.
Yogurt (including Greek yogurt) is somewhat higher in carbs, usually around 4-6 g per a 100 g serving (3.5 oz), but you can still fit a serving or two in your daily macros from time to time.
Some of the carbs quoted on the label have actually been “eaten up” by the bacteria during the fermentation process, but given that we don’t know the exact amount, it’s wise to count all carbs.
Kefir, including coconut kefir and kefir made with nut milks, is a drink made out of milk (or another liquid that contains natural sugars) to which kefir grains have been added, which ferment it (and which are removed afterwards).
Don’t worry, kefir grains aren’t really grains, they’re just the live cultures used for making kefir.
It’s popular in Russia and in Eastern Europe and is now gaining popularity in other European countries and in Northern America, because of its health benefits.
Kefir is not difficult to make yourself. You’d need to buy kefir grains and follow the instructions on how to make it, available on many websites dedicated to fermented foods (or to kefir in particular).
It contains both live bacteria and yeast, so for those of you sensitive to yeast, you might want to avoid it.
Naturally, people sensitive to dairy should also avoid kefir made from milk, but they can still have other types of kefir made from coconut and other nuts.
Kefir contains a very rich and diverse population of probiotics, which makes it particularly beneficial. On top of that, kefir even has antibacterial and antifungal properties and might be protective against certain cancers, such as gastric cancer (12).
Kefir’s macros will vary per brand, but a 100 g serving (3.5 oz) will usually be about 40-60 calories and 4 to 6 g carbs.
Similarly to yogurt, the carbs are the sugars naturally present in milk and some of them have been absorbed by the bacteria, although it’s difficult to know the exact amount.
Despite the higher carb count, you can still fit some of it from time to time in your diet for the sake of your beneficial gut bacteria.
When buying kefir, just make sure to read the ingredients to make sure they are keto-friendly.
Sauerkraut is a type of fermented cabbage produced in a number of countries across Europe and is a popular winter food (used as a side dish or as a base of different dishes).
Similarly to other foods containing probiotics, the sauerkraut that contains live bacteria will be refrigerated. If it’s canned, it’s likely pasteurized, which kills the beneficial strains of bacteria.
Sauerkraut should be naturally fermented in order for you to experience its full benefits.
Watch out for ingredients such as sugar, sodium benzoate, or other suspicious ingredients (apart from other vegetables which are sometimes added and are totally fine). Real sauerkraut should contain only cabbage, salt, water and eventually a starter culture.
Sauerkraut’s macros will vary per brand but it’s typically very low in calories (around 20 per 100 g or 3.5 oz serving) and in net carbs (around 1 to 3 in the same serving size).
Additionally, it contains lots of fiber – around 2-3 g per 100 g, which adds to its gut health benefits.
#5. Traditionally Fermented Foods
Most pickles and other fermented vegetables available in stores nowadays are produced by adding vinegar and sometimes sugar and are often pasteurized. Unfortunately, this type of pickled food doesn’t contain probiotics and won’t be specifically beneficial for your gut health.
In order to experience the potential benefits of fermented vegetables, including pickles, you need to look for the traditionally fermented stuff – the one that is sold on markets, often out of huge jars with brine; or refrigerated, if you look for it in the supermarket.
When buying pickles, opt for those who don’t have added sugar, and if you’re looking for the ones that contain live cultures, they will be refrigerated.
If you don’t find those in your regular go-to supermarkets, you might be able to find them in Russian, Polish or Ukrainian grocery stores.
Pickles, even when not traditionally fermented, have another benefit if you’re looking to lose weight.
Due to how tangy, sour and salty they are, they can suppress your appetite, and they’re also very low in calories (around 15-20 kcal per 100 g or 3.5 oz) and in net carbs (1-2 net carbs per 100 g / 3.5 oz).
So if you’re struggling with staying within your daily calories, you can have a serving or two of pickles as a snack.
Kombucha is a type of fermented tea that is becoming more and more popular amongst health-conscious people.
It’s made by fermenting sweetened tea, and will, therefore contain some carbs. Basically, the sweeter the taste, the more carbs it contains.
Most of the sugar in it is eaten by the bacteria, but, again, it’s difficult to know what part of it exactly. Kombucha is slightly fizzy, but not because it has been carbonated, its fizz is due to the natural fermentation process.
You can make kombucha at home, and experiment with batches containing less sugar, or let it ferment for longer (allowing the bacteria to absorb more of the sugar content).
Be careful with this, though. Follow instructions precisely and discard any batch that smells off or has any unexpected change in color or appearance.
Otherwise, it’s available at most health food stores and, as most probiotic foods, will be sold refrigerated.
If you’re on a strict keto plan, kombucha might not be a good fit because it still contains some sugar, even though it’s low in carbs. Otherwise, it’s good for general low carb dieters.
The fermentation process helps lower the phytic acid content of soybeans (which is a substance that worsens the absorption of some micronutrients, such as zinc and iron) (13).
This, in turn, makes the overall nutritional profile of tempeh even better, allowing you to absorb more of the minerals contained in it. It also contains vitamin B12, which is particularly important for people who do not consume meat and/or animal products (14).
Tempeh is higher in carbs, it contains about 9 to 10 g of carbs per 100 g (3.5 oz), and as such is better suited for a low-carb diet and not for strict keto.
Apart from that, it’s very rich in protein (18-20 g) and contains a moderate amount of fats, too (10-11 g per 100 g / 3.5 oz). For the exact nutritional information, refer to the label, as it might vary.
Natto is another Asian product made by fermenting soybeans – this time, coming from Japan.
It’s made using the Bacillus subtilis bacteria strain and has a very strong and distinctive flavor.
Apart from being rich in probiotics, it also has a high vitamin K2 content, which plays an essential role in maintaining optimal bone health, lowering the risk of fractures, and also contributes to controlling the risk of developing heart disease (15).
Natto can be found in Japanese supermarkets and grocery stores, and also in some health food stores.
Similarly to tempeh, it’s somewhat higher in carbs than most other foods in this list. It contains about 9-10 g net carbs per 100 g (3.5 oz).
You could still fit some in your macros from time to time if you’re doing keto, but it’s a better option for low-carb diets that have a slightly higher carb limit.
#9. Some Types of Cheese
Many types of cheese on the market do not contain any live bacteria, as they are pasteurised or have undergone other processes that kill the probiotics, but some of them do.
Raw cheese (i.e. cheese made from raw cow, sheep or goat’s milk) that hasn’t been pasteurized after that, or also aged cheese (such as blue cheese) both contain probiotics.
Examples include feta, gouda, Emmental, provolone, cheddar, mozzarella, and others. Check the label for additional indications, such as “contains live cultures,” “probiotic”, “raw” and the like.
The macros of cheese will widely vary based on the type, but most cheese is low-carb.
Nevertheless, if your goal is weight loss, you should be mindful of the calories that cheese contains and measure your servings with a food scale (and not eyeball them).
Probiotic foods are incredibly beneficial for our gut health, and getting more of them directly from your food is a great way to keep things smooth, especially if you’ve suffered from diarrhea recently, or have needed to take antibiotics.
Additionally, probiotics seem to improve the functioning of the immune system, strengthening it, while at the same time regulating allergic reactions and eczemas.
Most of the probiotic foods in the list above are very low in carbs, some are slightly higher, but you could still have some from time to time even on strict keto – just plan your day accordingly.
What are your favorite probiotic foods? Have you ever fermented anything yourself? How did it go? Share your experience with us in the comments below – we’d love to hear from you!
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