“Why are you people always switching out sour cream for yogurt in all your recipes?”
This was the question I was asked a few weeks ago while teaching a (virtual) cooking store tour. The question had me pausing because it was so good and to be honest, I’m surprised no one has ever asked me before. I paused also because it’s been so many years since I’ve actually eaten sour cream – and years too since my yogurt-in-every-meal days.
So why do nutritionists and health-minded persons tend to switch out sour cream and add yogurt at every opportunity? Without jumping too deep into the science at first glance, I think we can look towards long histories of fermented foods in virtually all traditional ways of eating around the world. Our ancestors were fermenting foods in all sorts of ways for better health and as a way of food preservation. Yogurt products—whether they are dairy-based or non-dairy—all have the same culture of bacteria added, and as most of us have learned from countless yogurt advertisements, it’s good for gut health. Plain old sour cream, and other creamy dairy foods, can’t generally say the same.
Fiber Nourishes Your Gut – Prebiotics
What we’ve learned in the science and nutrition community over the last couple decades is that what we eat affects our gut bacteria. Our digestive system is home to trillions of beneficial bacteria, called the gut microbiota or microbiome. These bacteria live in an (ideally) symbiotic relationship with us. In the case of beneficial bacteria, they feed on the undigested part of the food, (fiber), that is passing through the large intestine by fermenting it into short chain fatty acids such as N-Butyrate. That’s a good thing.
When we eat fibrous plant-foods, we are essentially feeding many species of beneficial bacteria from the fiber that we ourselves cannot digest. And when we don’t eat the foods that beneficial bacteria need, we lose harmony and balance between beneficial and disruptive bacteria, and dysbiosis occurs. Often with all sorts of negative symptoms that we experience. This beneficial fiber-rich food is what we’ll often call ‘pre-biotics.’
A healthy gut microbiome can protect us against disease-causing bacteria because the good bacteria competes for space in the intestines, blocking the bad guys from establishing a strong community. Beneficial bacteria can also help us absorb otherwise non-absorbable nutrients like certain antioxidant polyphenols, produce some micronutrients like vitamin K, and provide needed fuel for the cells in the colon. Production of short chain fatty acids by bacteria in the intestine also plays an important role in the maintenance of the intestinal barrier. Butyrate, the short chain fatty acid I mentioned above, has been shown to be protective against colon cancer.
Whereas we don’t want an overgrown of bacteria in the small intestine, having ample beneficial bacteria in the colon is a hallmark for optimal health. Low beneficial bacteria can impact your protective mucus lining in the intestinal tract, which supports up to 70% of our immunity. The commonly used phrase “leaky gut” comes in here when the interplay between a low fiber diet, low beneficial bacteria count, and difficult to digest macromolecules poke holes in the cheesecloth-like fragility of the intestinal lining and then opens the way for the immune system to do its job –in overdrive – resulting in sensitivities, intolerances, and allergies to many foods.
Fermented Foods and Probiotics
On the flip side of the prebiotic/fiber-rich food equation is a term we’ve all heard. Probiotics. That stuff that makes yogurt and other fermented and/or bacteria-containing foods like sauerkraut, kimchi, miso, tempeh, raw vinegar, raw honey, and (traditional) sourdough bread health-promoting. Probiotic-rich foods essentially mean we’re eating the beneficial bacteria rather than feeding the good bacteria we already have.
When to Supplement
Probiotic supplements, especially in high doses, are often extremely helpful for individuals with an autoimmune flare, food or environmental allergies, metabolic concerns, hormone imbalance, skin health, cognitive and/or mental health, long-term and/or frequent antibiotic use, and of course, any sort of symptom that’s related to negative digestion—which tends to be a precursor to many of the other health challenges. When we’re using probiotics that occur naturally in fermented foods, we’re trying to maintain the balance of beneficial bacteria in our system (not just our gut either, our skin and many other areas of the body also have a microbiome). But when we’ve been in a pattern of long-term distress, we often need a little help from more bacteria than we can ingest through food. So a supplement might be necessary—ideally one of a reputable brand and with strains and quantities of bacteria that are scientifically founded for the symptoms or imbalance.
Going back to that question I received about sour cream and yogurt. I don’t tend to push a lot of yogurt as a preferred probiotic food source. Many individuals don’t tolerate dairy at all and the dairy industry is sadly pretty corporate and non-supportive of small producers these days. If you tolerate dairy products, and can source from a small dairy producing yogurt from grass-fed cows, then yes, it can be healthful. And while non-dairy yogurts contain some bacteria cultures, they often don’t provide much else in the way of protein or micronutrients. Flavored varieties of all types of yogurt are problematic due to all the other added ingredients, such as fillers, gums, sweeteners, and preservatives. Instead, I definitely encourage choosing a range of all the bacteria-containing foods.
One of my favorites is whole-grain sourdough. If you need a home project this fall and winter, starting your own sourdough mother (and naming it), will be immensely rewarding. My sourdough mother’s name is Esmerelda. Even if you’re not a baker. The flatbread below has become one of my five-minute favorites as a bready lunch side when I’m short on pre-made options, and with just the mother, you never actually have to launch off into sourdough baking (but I certainly recommend it if you’re ready for a next step).
Dysbiosis in the gut microbiome is one of the five primary categories of digestive imbalances I look for when working with individuals clinically. Often when we’re experiencing chronic GI distress, there will be imbalances in several categories, and we begin working on the areas that appear most pertinent. I previously shared about the nervous system’s role, and the immune system leading to inflammation and food reactions, a tip to support impaired digestion and absorption in part four, and I’ll explain remaining topics of digestive imbalance in future articles.
And If you’re tired of dealing with your wonky GI and would like to get back to feeling and training well, I invite you to reach out to me for more personalized support.
Simple Sourdough Flatbread, makes 1
This is the absolutely simplest flatbread made from the sourdough mother. It’s rich and delicious, tastes bready and substantial, and can be flavored in many ways beyond the simple (plain) way I’ve made it. For a few more ideas, see this video which was the original that clued me into this delicious bread idea. For a larger amount, just use more starter. If you do not have a sourdough starter, I made mine from Baking Magique’s instructions. Instead of a mix of buckwheat and brown rice flour, my starter is 100 percent buckwheat. It keeps feeding Esmerelda super simple that way.
70 grams / ~1/2 cup sourdough starter
a little oil for your pan
- Heat a medium to large skillet over medium-high heat. Add a little oil of choice, such as olive or coconut oil.
- Pour your measured sourdough starter directly onto the pan and with a rubber spatula, gently spread it out so it’s smooth. Cook for about 3-4 minutes; then flip and cook 3-4 minutes more. You might need to turn your pan down a little, as this bread is slightly thick and you want to make sure you cook it all the way through.
- Remove from pan, and add to your meal. I often eat it as a side like naan, but sometimes use it as a base for random other toppings that I have on hand for a quick lunch.