Probiotics and Weight Loss

Probiotics are getting a lot of attention for helping to regulate your digestive system. But can adding them to your diet have weight-loss benefits?

By Madeline Vann, MPH
Medically reviewed by Pat F. Bass III, MD, MPH

You may already be familiar with taking probiotics to counter stomach complaints or reduce the diarrhea that results from taking antibiotics. Probiotics, the ”friendly bacteria,” are touted as an aid in improving immunity and managing digestion, but whether they have a significant role in weight loss is still up for debate.

Before you can decide whether to add probiotics to your diet, it helps to know what they are. ”Probiotics are foods that contain live bacteria or other organisms that may promote your health,” says Amy C. Brown, PhD, RD, associate professor in the department of complementary and alternative medicine at the John A. Burns School of Medicine at the University of Hawaii in Honolulu. ”They are naturally found in fermented dairy products and other fermented foods or beverages.” Probiotics are also available in supplement form.

Probiotics and Weight Loss: The Debate

”Recently the research world has been buzzing about how probiotics may help with weight loss,” says Brown. The theory is that probiotics may affect the way that energy (calories) is digested and therefore could help regulate the process by which energy can be used by the body, including becoming fat.

Brown recommends caution in the face of any such research: Probiotics are not magic diet pills, and they definitely do not give you license to stop counting calories or following your diet.

”I can tell you that the very minute those minor changes probiotics cause in relationship to metabolic pathways related to obesity occur, they will be immediately wiped out with an extra spoonful or sip of anything containing calories,” she says. In fact, a sugary yogurt could have more calories than probiotic benefit.

The Health Benefits of Probiotics

The recommendation to include probiotics in a healthy diet dates back to the 1930s. Probiotics can be used to help:

  • Diarrhea from infection, food poisoning, or antibiotics
  • Treat urinary tract infections
  • Prevent or treat yeast infections
  • Irritable bowel syndrome
  • Inflammatory bowel disease
  • Eczema
  • Reduce the risk of bladder cancer returning
  • Protect against colon cancer
  • Improve the immune system

When the digestive tract is out of balance, people experience a lot of discomfort, says Brown. Probiotics are used to maintain that balance. ” A balanced or ‘normal’ [digestive] flora may competitively exclude possible [harmful] organisms, stimulate the intestinal immune system, and produce nutrients and other [beneficial] substances,” Brown explains.

The Risks of Excess Probiotics

Researchers do not yet know how safe it is to eat a lot of probiotics. Some people experience gas or bloating as a reaction to these organisms.

”Probiotic research is in its infancy. It’s difficult to tell what would happen if you introduce a large amount of a certain bacteria through dietary supplementation,” cautions Brown, adding that probiotics have to be kept refrigerated. Many people unknowingly buy inactive supplements that haven’t been handled correctly.

How to Include Probiotics in Your Diet

While probiotics are available in supplement form, Brown emphasizes that it is best to get them from your diet if possible. Try:

  • Dairy products with live cultures, such as yogurt and buttermilk
  • Miso soup, which is made from fermented soybean paste
  • Poi, fermented taro root paste
  • Natto, fermented soy beans
  • Tempeh, caked fermented soybeans
  • Sauerkraut, fermented cabbage
  • Kombucha tea, fermented sweet tea brew

As long as you keep counting calories, adding probiotics to your diet may be good for your health and your weight. Just remember that its chief benefit may be more geared toward your well-being rather than your weight loss.

Learn more in the Everyday Health Weight Center.