Gut Health and Nutrition: Probiotics vs Prebiotics 101

gut health probiotics and prebiotics

Who would have guessed that gut health would be such a popular topic? In the past few years, we have seen a rise in probiotic sales around the world. By 2024, it is estimated that sales will reach nearly $66 billion globally (1). Back in 2012, the use of probiotics and/or prebiotics increased by four times from 2007 (2). However, most people are still confused by what probiotics and prebiotics are. People may also wonder if they really need to incorporate them into their routine. Before we dive in to defining each, let’s first take a look at our gut microbiome.

Gut Microbiome

You’ve maybe heard of the term “gut microbiome.” If you are a nutrition nerd like me, then you may find gut health fascinating. It amazes me that the human gut microbiota consists of 10 times more cells than are in the rest of the human body (3). Considering this, it makes sense that our gut health plays important roles in metabolism, immunity, development, and even behavior (4). Our gut microbiome is not the same from person to person. Much like the rest of our health, our gut health is influenced by “diversity and abundance of various species of gut microbial communities [and] can vary widely across populations”(3,5). A person’s gut health is affected by nutrition, lifestyle, environmental exposure and genetics (5).

While the gut microbiome is a complex topic, think of it as simply its own little ecosystem. The gut bacteria are living within your gut (primarily the colon). Within the colon, there are layers of mucous and microbes. The biofilm also contains microbes. All of these work together to keep you healthy. The image below helps illustrate the complexity of the microbiome.

gut health microbiome

Probiotics Role in Gut Health

When people think of gut health, often one of the first things to come to mind are probiotics. Probiotics are the live microorganisms that can provide health benefits when given in adequate amounts (6). While there are a number of supplements on the market, we will primarily be focusing on food sources of probiotics today. I typically encourage clients to consume foods first because they likely miss out on additional nutrients by only using the supplement form.

Some of the most popular probiotic-rich foods are those from the dairy family. Fermented milk beverages include kefir & yogurt. For those not familiar, kefir is a milk beverage that contains yeast and almost one dozen different bacteria with health benefits (7). In addition to probiotics, kefir also provides the body with vitamins, folate, and riboflavin. Another dairy source of probiotics is yogurt. A popular drinkable yogurt is the DanActive brand (8). This particular yogurt has even been studied for its association with a decrease in illness of kids. If you prefer a dairy alternative, Good Karma flax milk does contain strains of probiotics as well as omega-3 fats (9).

Additional sources of probiotics are outlined in the image below.

probiotic gut health
Note: some sources contain higher amounts of probiotics than others

Check out these past blog posts for recipes that contain probiotic-rich foods, like my citrus parfait with pistachios.

Prebiotic Role in Gut Health

Prebiotics are the ingredients that are selectively fermented and result in the changes in composition and activity of the GI microbiota (10). One way to remember how to differentiate prebiotics from probiotics is who each benefits. Prebiotics fuel the growth of probiotics, while the probiotics more directly benefit the host. In other words, you need to have prebiotics to help promote the probiotics growth in the microbiome. Of the prebiotics, fructo-oligosaccharides, inulin, and galacto-oligosaccharides are the most well-studied. While these are a mouthful, it’s easier to just focus on the sources of prebiotic-rich foods. Many of the high-fiber foods you may already be eating may contain prebiotics. Check out the image below.

Note: some sources contain higher amounts of prebiotics than others

Check out my last blog post where I utilized bananas for a source of prebiotics, plus this other post utilizing both probiotics and prebiotics.

**It should also be noted that some people who are sensitive to high FODMAP foods, will likely not tolerate all of these prebiotic foods. If this is you, reach out to a dietitian who is knowledgeable in gut health.

Bottom Line

Overall, it’s important to get a variety of probiotics and prebiotics in our daily intake to promote a healthy gut microbiome. While probiotics tend to steal the spotlight, prebiotics are just as important. Try pairing probiotics and prebiotics together in your snacks in meals. For breakfast or a snack, try pairing your favorite yogurt with some banana slices.

Get creative! What other ways can you think to combine these foods?

intuitive eating


  1. Zion Market Research. (2018, June). Probiotic Market by Ingredient Type (Bacteria and Yeast), by Function (Regular Use, Preventive Healthcare, and Therapeutic), by Application (Food and Beverages, Dietary Supplements, and Animal Feed), and by End-user (Human Probiotics and Animal Probiotics): Global Industry Perspective, Comprehensive Analysis and Forecast, 2018 – 2024. Retrieved from
  2. Clarke, T. C., Black, L. I., Stussman, B. J., Barnes, P. M., & Nahin, R. L. (2015). Trends in the use of complementary health approaches among adults: United States, 2002–2012. National health statistics reports; no 79. Hyattsville, MD: National Center for Health Statistics. Retrieved from
  3. Dennett, C. (2018). Shaping the gut microbiota. Today’s Dietitian, 20(8), 16. Retrieved from
  4. Bäckhed, F, Roswal,l J, Peng, Y, et al. (2015). Dynamics and stabilization of the human gut microbiome during the first year of life. Cell Host Microbe, 17(5), 690-703.
  5. De Filippo, C, Cavalieri, D, Di Paola, M, et al. (2010). Impact of diet in shaping gut microbiota revealed by a comparative study in children from Europe and rural Africa. Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A, 107(33), 14691-14696.
  6. Hill C, Guarner F, Reid G, et al. (2014). The International Scientific Association for Probiotics and Prebiotics consensus statement on the scope and appropriate use of the term probiotic. Nat Rev Gasteroenterol Hepatol, 11(8), 506-514.
  7. Soccol, C. R., Prado, M. R. M., Garcia, L. M. B., Rodrigues, C., Medeiros, A. B. P., & Soccol, V. T. (2014). Current developments in probiotics. J Microb Biochem Technol, 7(1):11-20.
  8. Merenstein, D., Murphy, M., Fokar, A., et al. (2010). Use of a fermented dairy probiotic drink containing Lactobacillus casei (DN-114 001) to decrease the rate of illness in kids: the DRINK study. A patient-oriented, double-blind, cluster-randomized, placebo-controlled, clinical trial. Eur J Clin Nutr, 64(7), 669-677.
  9. Collins, S. C. (2017). Probiotics: Probiotic beverages. Today’s Dietitian, 19(4), 20.
  10. Gibson, G. R., Scott, K. P., Rastall, R. A, et al. (2010). Dietary prebiotics: current status and new definition. Food Science and Technology Bulletin: Functional Foods, 7(1), 1-19.

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