Your gut will thank you.
Taking probiotics for your gut health is one thing. (Who’s gonna say no to fewer stomach issues and more bathroom regularity? No one—that’s who.)
But can these teeny-tiny bacteria—found in dietary supplements and fermented foods—help you lose weight, too? They do live in your stomach, after all.
First: What the heck are probiotics anyway?
Probiotics are live microorganisms that naturally live in your body already, according to the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health (NCCIH).
“Probiotics are substances that encourage the growth of bacteria, specifically beneficial bacteria, that help to keep intestinal health in balance,” says Frances Largeman-Roth, R.D.N., author of Eating in Color. “A healthy balance of good bacteria in the body may help regulate weight and ward off a range of health issues.”
Those other health issues include digestive problems like irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), along with allergic skin diseases like atopic dermatitis, and even the common cold, per the NCCIH.
So, can probiotics help with weight loss?
Honestly, no one knows for sure—that’s because most probiotic research has focused on how to improve digestive issues or immune health.
The most promising evidence on probiotics and weight loss comes from a 2013 study in The British Journal of Nutrition, which studied the effects of one strain of probiotics, lactobacillus rhamnosus (LGG).
Researchers followed 125 men and women throughout a 12-week weight-loss program, giving half the participants LGG and the other half a placebo. At the end of the trial, the women who took probiotics lost more weight than the women on the placebo. The probiotics group also went on to continue losing weight after the trial had ended (the placebo group only maintained).
The bad news? This is pretty much the only study of its kind—all the others have used much smaller sample sizes.
Still, probiotics promote overall health, which never hurts when it comes to weight loss. “Gut bacteria lines the intestines and comes in contact with the food you eat, [so] the thought is that this may impact how you absorb nutrients,” says Amy Gorin, R.D.N., owner of Amy Gorin Nutrition in the New York City area.
So…how can I add more probiotics to my diet?
While you can get probiotics through food, the easiest way to get some probiotics in your diet every day without fail is likely through a probiotic supplement.
But here’s the thing: There are dozens of probiotic supplements on the market, with different supplements containing different strains.
Culturelle specifically advertises that it uses the LGG strain (previously studied for its relationship to weight loss), and Gorin also recommends Florastor for helping to promote healthy gut bacteria.
VSL#3 is another probiotic supplement that’s more potent than most (it contains eight different strains of live bacteria). It’s most often prescribed along with certain medications to manage chronic digestive issues like irritable bowel syndrome and ulcerative colitis.
Gorin notes that one study in Obesity found daily supplementation with VSL#3 may provide some protection against weight gain when eating a high-calorie, high-fat diet. However, the sample size was limited: only 20 non-obese men were studied.
Of course, don’t forget to hit up your doctor for the go-ahead before taking any supplements, says Gorin—while probiotics are generally considered to be safe, they may cause some gastrointestinal upset at first, like bloating and gas.
But what if I don’t want to take a supplement? Can I get probiotics anywhere else?
You sure can—in fact, it might be better to get your probiotics from food sources. “I would always urge people to eat food first,” says Gorin—that way, you’re getting other nutrients too, in addition to probiotic benefits. Here are a few ways to get probiotics from food:
1. Stock up on yogurt.
Fermented dairy products, like yogurt and kefir, are high in the lactobacillus probiotic.
“Not all yogurt contains probiotics, so it’s important to read the label and visit the company’s website to look for transparency about this,” says Gorin. (Hint: look for the National Yogurt Association’s “Live & Active Cultures” seal. Chobani and Fage brands are typically safe bets.)
If you would rather drink your dairy than eat it with a spoon, you can try kefir, a fermented drink made from cow’s or goat’s milk and cultures of yeast and lactic acid bacteria.
2. Load up on picked cabbage.
Like yogurt and kefir, vegetables that are fermented—especially pickled cabbage, like sauerkraut and kimchi—are reliable ways to pump up your probiotic ratio.
One caveat about pickled cabbage: Most of the products sold in U.S. stores have been through a heating process called pasteurization for safety, which can destroy both good and bad bacteria. So, if you really want to reap the fermentation benefits, look for unpasteurized products or make your own.
3. Go all in on fermented cheeses.
So, cheese isn’t likely to be first on your list when you think of probiotics, but it turns out, fermented cheeses like Gouda, cheddar, and Swiss are made with lactic acid bacteria, a probiotic, says Jackie Newgent, R.D. Quality matters here too (more fermentation equals more probiotics), so make sure the person behind the counter points you to the finest aged Gouda there is.
4. Use apple cider vinegar…on salads.
Many purported health benefits of ACV are pretty conflated (and are not actually scientifically proven), but ACV really does have probiotics to help your gut health. Instead of taking it via shot (or diluted in water, even), try adding it to your salad dressings for an extra kick of healthy bacteria.