Fermented foods have received a lot of attention lately in the health and nutrition world, and for very good reason. The process of fermentation is one that occurs when the naturally occurring bacteria present in foods feeds on the starches and sugars, creating lactic acid. The end product of fermentation produces a food with increased, preserved nutrient content, and one that is, in a way, already partially digested. This means that fermented foods are packed full of probiotic bacteria, which is essential to human health (and not just gut health).
Kefir is a form of fermented food that is a dairy beverage, typically made from cow’s milk but also made from goat’s milk or even coconut milk. It has gained popularity in recent years and can now frequently be found at your local health food store or Whole Foods Market. You can purchase (or make it) plain, or mixed with fruits or other natural flavoring agents.
Usually upon hearing the word “bacteria,” we tend to associate this with bad, pathogenic bacterias. While bacterias do exist that can cause harm, our gut is actually filled with billions of good strains of bacterias that are crucial to our health. Having the right kind of probiotic bacteria in our gut supports digestive health, immune function and even neurological health. In fact, without proper gut flora, we are much more susceptible to a myriad of diseases.
Leaky gut syndrome is at the root of every autoimmune condition, and a lack of healthy gut bacteria is a leading cause of this condition.
While many cultures across the globe had their own ancient traditions of fermenting local foods, many of these traditions have been lost amidst the influence of the western diet model. Increased processed and packaged foods and less fermented and traditional foods have contributed to the trend of more degenerative diseases, and reclaiming the tradition of regularly eating fermented foods can do your health some serious favors.
Now, let’s take a look at the specific health benefits offered by kefir.
Kefir is Packed Full of Important Nutrients
Not only is kefir an excellent source of gut healthy probiotics, but it also provides a surprising and impressive amount of other key nutrients. A six ounce serving of kefir offers 20% of the RDA (recommended daily allowance) for calcium, 20% of the RDA for phosphorus, 14% of the RDA for vitamin B12, 19% of the RDA for Riboflavin, 5% of the RDA for magnesium, and some vitamin D (1). That same six ounce serving is fairly low in calories (about 100), which consists of six grams of protein, three grams of fat and seven grams of carbs.
As if that weren’t enough, kefir also contains a myriad of bioactive compounds that provide various health benefits. Remember that kefir can be made with coconut milk or water if you are sensitive to dairy, but it won’t contain the same nutrition content and benefits (but will still contain probiotics).
Kefir Offers More Probiotic Benefit than Yogurt
Yogurt is probably the best known fermented food on the market, but kefir actually offers more probiotic content than yogurt. Probiotics are strains of microorganisms that are crucial to our health, and many aspects of modern day society put our gut health at risk (over-use of antibiotics, lack of fermented foods in the diet and an abundance of processed/packaged foods, for instance). Probiotics have been linked not only to proper digestive health (2), but also proper brain function (3), weight management and and a healthy immune system.
Kefir contains at least 30 different strains of good bacteria, so is an excellent source of fermented foods to include in your diet. And the good news for those with dairy sensitivity is that many people will tolerate kefir.
Kefir Can Lower your Risk of Osteoporosis and Increase Bone Health
Osteoporosis is a growing problem in western societies (largely due to diet), and is basically when bone tissue deteriorates, causing malformation and pain. It is most common among the elderly (especially women), but can also affect younger people. Proper calcium intake is key for prevention and treatment of this disease, and kefir is a top choice.
Remember, the kefir you buy (or make) must be from whole milk, or it will not offer the same calcium boosting benefits. Kefir is also quite high in vitamin K2, which is essential for proper calcium metabolism. Studies have actually shown that kefir can greatly increase calcium absorption, leading to greater bone density and health (4).
Kefir Supports Healthy GI (Gastrointestinal) Function
Because of its high levels of probiotics (as discussed above) kefir can greatly promote a healthy digestive tract, in the sense of preventing future problems and supporting current conditions. For example, an abundance of probiotic rich food in the diet can treat diarrhea, improve protein digestion, and make sure the lining of the digestive tract is properly filtering out the foods that should not pass into the blood stream (on the contrary, damage to the lining can result in leaky gut syndrome, as mentioned earlier. Kefir might even be able to help in treatment of serious GI conditions such as IBS, IBD and Chrohn’s Disease (but this should be discussed with your doctor).
Kefir’s Powerful Anti-Inflammatory Properties Could Improve Allergies and Asthma
Most people are shocked to learn that leaky gut syndrome (more technically termed: increased intestinal permeability), can not only make us more likely to react poorly to foods, but can also increase our chances of suffering from asthma and seasonal allergies. That is because when food molecules are allowed to pass into the blood stream due to a damaged intestinal lining, this prompts our immune system to attack and remain on high alert, making us ultra-sensitive to both food and environmental irritants. Including kefir and other fermented foods in the diet on a daily basis can help cool inflammation in the body and decrease our chances of suffering from allergies and asthma.
So, Should I Opt for Kefir Over Yogurt?
The short answer to this question is: yes. If you have access to kefir or can make it at home, kefir does actually offer more probiotic strains than yogurt. However, getting good sources of fermented foods into your diet is important no matter what they are, so if yogurt is more easily accessible than kefir, go for yogurt. Better yet, switch between the two, as variety in all areas of your diet is important. With both yogurt and kefir, be sure not to buy any brand that is heavy in added sugars and artificial ingredients, so always be diligent about reading labels.