What’s the Difference Between Probiotics and Prebiotics?

What’s the Difference Between Probiotics and Prebiotics?

Prebiotics and probiotics continue to receive praise for their potential health benefits. So you may wonder how they stack up when you look at prebiotic vs. probiotic foods and supplements.

In short, prebiotics support the work that probiotics do. So they’re more like teammates than competitors.

Keep reading to learn about the benefits of each, the best food sources, and whether you need probiotics or prebiotics.

What’s the Difference Between Prebiotics and Probiotics?

First up: What are prebiotics? These are fibers that feed probiotics in our gut, explains Angela Lemond, R.D.N., national spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.

Since prebiotics are fibers, they provide some of the same benefits as that macronutrient, particularly when it comes to digestion.

“We know that fiber is beneficial to our health,” says Natalie Wallace, M.S., R.D.N., Container Program Nutritionist at Beachbody. “It can help support weight loss and maintenance, lower cholesterol levels, and keep us regular.”

Research also suggests that prebiotics help improve gut barrier integrity, which may help reduce inflammation.

Then, what are probiotics? These are “good” bacteria.

“This means that when consumed, these bacteria provide some kind of health benefit,” Wallace explains. “Oftentimes the benefit is related to gut health, but it could be related to other aspects of our health.”

Scientists continue to examine these perks of probiotics. At this point, according to the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health, evidence shows that probiotics are promising to prevent antibiotic-associated diarrhea, treat periodontal disease, and maintain remission in ulcerative colitis.

Probiotics may also influence immune function. However, they could be harmful for those with health conditions that weaken the immune system.

Finally, some studies suggest that probiotics may boost athletic performance.

review published in the Journal of Sport and Health Science in 2017 reported that these benefits may come from the short-chain fatty acids formed when probiotics in the gut ferment prebiotics.

These fatty acids might improve endurance performance by maintaining blood glucose levels over time, but this is still uncertain.

Prebiotic vs. Probiotic Foods

Woman chopping vegetables

Plants contain fiber, so many plant foods are prebiotics, Wallace says. The list of foods that contain prebiotics includes:

On the other hand, probiotics are found in fermented foods, including kefir and yogurt with live cultures.

And although apple cider vinegar, cheese, kimchi, kombucha, miso, and sauerkraut are fermented, according to the Office of Dietary Supplements, the specific bacteria in these have not been studied, so it’s unclear if they provide any probiotic benefit.

Also, Wallace says you’d have to regularly consume a large number of foods with probiotics to have a real impact on the gut.

“That’s not to say probiotic foods don’t have any health benefits,” she adds. “They often provide other nutrients, like vitamins, minerals, and phytochemicals.”

Prebiotic vs. Probiotic Supplements

Bowl of yogurt

In addition to food, you can find prebiotics and probiotics in supplements.

While Lemond favors high-fiber foods over prebiotic supplements, Wallace says these capsules can be useful if you struggle to get enough fiber in your diet.

“You want to be careful if you’re hardly consuming any fiber and you start on a prebiotic supplement,” Wallace cautions. “Adding too much fiber too quickly can have a negative effect and cause stomach upset. Start with a quarter of the recommended dose and increase by a quarter every few days until you’re at the full dose.”

When it comes to probiotic supplements, “there are probably fewer benefits supported by research than you think,” Wallace says.

If you’re generally healthy, consuming foods that contain prebiotics and including fermented foods in your daily diet is probably all you need, Lemond says.

If you have digestive issues, probiotic supplements may help rebalance the gut, she adds.

Whether you’re interested in prebiotic or probiotic supplements, both Lemond and Wallace recommend working with a dietitian who specializes in gut health or a gastrointestinal doctor to discuss your specific needs.

Different types of prebiotics and different probiotic strains all have different health benefits, plus the dose or CFUs (colony forming units) matters.

When you go to buy any supplement, look for a seal from a third-party verification program such as NSF International. This indicates that the supplements contain what the label says they do.

One easy and tasty way to get both prebiotics and probiotics is with Shakeology. Some of the prebiotics in Shakeology include inulin and the yacon root. (Yacon is a tuber with high amounts of FOS, a powerful prebiotic.)

It also contains the probiotic (Bacillus coagulans), a robust and powerful strain that has been shown to be resistant to stomach acid.