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Probiotics vs. Prebiotics: What do you really need?


A breakdown of probiotics vs. prebiotics – What they are, how they benefit your gut, and how to get more.

Spring is (finally) here, and it’s the perfect time to reflect on the changes you set out to make in 2024. Maybe you vowed to push yourself this year. Maybe, you’re following the trend of intentional, impactful wellness moves like slow fitness.

Whether you’re ready to take your wellness up another notch or pivot to something a little different, one trend out there can benefit us all: Gut health.

If you’ve ever gone down the rabbit hole of gut health, you know how quickly things get confusing. There are so many factors at play and still lot of room (read: need) for research. As with most nutrition-related things, information isn’t black and white. Factor in pushy marketing to “buy this product” or “follow this gut health regime” and well, where do you even start?

Let’s take it back to the basics, starting with probiotics and prebiotics.

Prebiotics vs. Probiotics

You’ve heard of them, but what’s the difference? Do you need to supplement one or the other? Both?

What are probiotics?

You have billions of microbes living in your gut, including bacteria, viruses, fungi, and more. Sounds gross, but all of these play a role in gut health, which affects the entire body. Some microbes promote disease, while others fight it. In the end, balance is key.

Probiotics are the “good guys” when it comes to balance in the gut. These bacteria help fight off the “bad guys” and maintain balance.

How to get more

You can get probiotics from food or from a supplement. Here are some food sources:


As more people prioritize gut health, some wellness brands have started fortifying products with probiotics. Example: Sculpt & Debloat Protein Powder!

When shopping for yogurt or anything fortified with probiotics, be sure to look for “live and active cultures” on the label. The two most common strains of probiotic bacteria you’ll see are lactobacillus acidophilus and Bifidobacterium bifidum.

Taking a supplement is the most convenient way to up your probiotic intake. You’ll most commonly see the two strains I mentioned above, plus some other types. For certain conditions, your healthcare provider might recommend targeting certain strains. Again, look for “live and active cultures.” Look for at least 1 billion Colony Forming Units (CFUs) per dose (and ask your provider if you want a more personalized recommendation for how much to take).

But do you NEED more?

A dietitian’s favorite phrase: It depends. 😀

Increasing your probiotic intake (through food or a supplement) may play a beneficial role in immune health, metabolic function (blood sugar, lipid levels, etc.) cancer prevention, brain function, allergies, and more.

Additionally, some conditions, lifestyle factors, and medications decrease beneficial bacteria in the gut. Taking probiotics may help to ease symptoms from some conditions too.  Some examples:

GI conditions like irritable bowel syndrome and ulcerative colitis
Antibiotic use
Lack of diversity in the diet (i.e. not eating many fruits and veggies)
Smoking and/or drinking

Generally, healthy people are fine just eating probiotic-rich foods regularly to support gut health. But if you’re on a mission to optimize your gut health, it doesn’t hurt to talk to your provider about trying a supplement.

What are prebiotics?

Switching gears to prebiotics! These are compounds that “feed” the good bacteria in the gut so they can flourish and fight off harmful microbes. When broken down, they produce short-chain fatty acids (SCFAs), which provide energy to the cells that line your colon, protect against digestive disorders, and fight inflammation. Prebiotics don’t stop their work in the gut. The SCFAs they produce also travel through the bloodstream to benefit organs all over the body.

How to get more

Two of the most common prebiotic compounds found in food include fructo-oligosaccharides and galacto-oligosaccharides. You can find these in:


…and more! However, the concentration in food really isn’t very high. In some cases, it might be helpful to try a prebiotic supplement. When you look at a supplement label, you’ll see ingredients like inulin, butyrate, oligosaccharides, and lactulose.

Do I need more?

Are prebiotics really worth your time, or just another trend? Again, it depends. Prebiotics can lower inflammation, support the immune system, and improve your mood. If you eat a pretty varied diet with plenty of fiber, a prebiotic supplement probably isn’t a necessity. If you want to boost your prebiotic intake for gut health, a supplement is safe to try.

A good place to start for gut health

Look. I realize that “gut health” has turned into a trendy buzzphrase in nutrition. But this is one trend I can definitely get behind. If nothing else, knowing the basics about probiotics and prebiotics should motivate you to incorporate more variety and more plant-based foods into your diet. For most of us, that’s really what it boils down to. Don’t let gut health overwhelm you!

If you decide to try a supplement, start slow and let your provider guide you to choose the best strain and dose for your needs.

Any other questions about probiotics vs prebiotics? Let me know in the comments!

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