Ask a Nutritionist: The Benefits of Probiotics

How to incorporate these helpful microorganisms into your diet.

A bowl of yogurt topped with raspberries and dried fruit

Chances are, you’ve come across an ad touting the benefits of probiotics — live bacteria or yeasts that are purported to be good for your digestive system. They’re found naturally in foods such as yogurt, some soft cheeses and sourdough bread, and can be taken in supplement form as well.

But are they actually good for you?

We talked to Georgia Giannopoulos, R.D.-A.P., registered dietitian and manager of NYPBeHealthy, NewYork-Presbyterian’s health and well-being program, who weighed in on the helpful nature of these microorganisms and how you can incorporate them into your diet.

How would you define probiotics?
A probiotic is basically healthy bacteria. Its name literally means “for life.” There’s been a lot of research looking into how they can benefit us, from maintaining digestive health and treating diarrhea to easing the symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome. We’re still learning what strains work best for certain conditions, but, in general, they’re great for keeping your gut healthy.

What are some forms of probiotics?
You can find them in yogurt with live and active cultures. That’s an important thing to look for when you’re at the grocery store, because if the product’s label doesn’t note that, it may not contain probiotics. Kefir, a type of fermented milk, is another great source of probiotics. They’re also found in things that have been pickled, including pickles and sauerkraut, and miso, which is made from fermented soybeans.

What are your thoughts on probiotic supplements?
There are so many of them on the market now and in a variety of forms. As with any supplement, vitamins and minerals included, it’s always a good idea to talk with your healthcare provider before you start taking them. There is no one size fits all. Someone who knows your medical history can guide you in the right direction.

Whom would you recommend them to?
A person who’s taking antibiotics may benefit since antibiotics may clean the gastrointestinal tract of both good and bad bacteria. Consuming foods with probiotics may help the body begin to restore the healthy bacteria. On the other hand, probiotics may be harmful to someone who has a weakened immune system. Always consult your healthcare provider before you start taking probiotics.

Besides digestive health, how else can probiotics help?
We know they’re instrumental in keeping the digestive tract healthy, but we still need more evidence to see exactly how else they can help. Early studies have shown that there could be a link between gut bacteria and obesity. I think the idea of your gut bacteria affecting your weight surprises a lot of people, but it just goes to show how important your digestive tract is to your overall health.