KEFIR: What is It and Why aren’t You Eating It?
If you’ve never heard the word kefir before, you’re certainly not alone. However, if you suffer from mild digestive disorders including upset stomach, indigestion, bloating, and fatigue related to poor digestion, you might want to include more kefir in your diet! You can buy premade kefir (pronounced key-fur) or make your own, at home, very simply with a starter kit. Let’s first explain what this substance is and then talk about some kefir health benefits, so you can see why this food is so important and how it can help you have better digestion and better overall health.
- What is kefir?
Kefir is like yogurt, as it’s made from any type of milk product, including dairy milk, soy milk, and even coconut milk. To make it, you use kefir grains that you can buy in a health food store or online. These aren’t actually grains as they don’t come from wheat or rice, but are small and granular like pebbles or sand; they may even resemble little cauliflower heads! These grains are a mix of yeast and bacteria, much like what is used to make yogurt, and they are reusable.
To make kefir milk, you place the grains in a jar (a standard mason jar will do) and then add milk but don’t stir it. Add a cover that will allow the mixture to breathe such as a coffee filter or even a dish towel over the jar, and leave the mix at room temperature, not in the refrigerator, so it can culture. After about 24 hours, you’ll see how the milk has thickened and the grains have separated. You can then pour the kefir yogurt, as the mix is now called, through a strainer. The strainer will separate the grains from the yogurt so they can be reused, and you have your own mix of homemade kefir!
There are also kefir starter kits you can buy that you use just once by mixing with milk or water. These kits contain grains that are soluble, meaning they dissolve as they culture, so they aren’t strained out of the yogurt. Simply follow the package directions with starter kits to make your own kefir milk or yogurt at home.
- How do you use kefir yogurt?
Once you begin to make your own homemade kefir yogurt, you can experiment with different types of milk and with how long to let it culture, depending on the thickness of the finished yogurt you prefer. You can just drink the kefir milk culture on its own, or let the mixture sit out for several more hours so it will thicken even more. You’ll then have a healthy yogurt dish that you can eat plain, or flavor with fruit or honey, just as you would any standard milk yogurt you buy from the store. For more fiber, add flaxseed or wheat germ. If you want something sweet but are trying to watch your calories, flavor your kefir yogurt with a bit of vanilla extract.
You might also try different milks for a variety of flavors; coconut kefir, made from coconut milk, might have a sweet flavor, or you can even use water in place of milk altogether. Water kefir has very few calories per serving and might be added to soups or stews to thicken them without adding any type of flavor.
- What are the health benefits of kefir?
When you hear that a food such as yogurt has bacteria, you may think it’s unhealthy and even unsafe. However, there are good types of bacteria that are needed in your digestive system in order to break down food and allow it to be absorbed into your system. When you have a consistently upset stomach, nausea, bloating, gas, and other digestive problems, you may not have enough of those good types of bacteria in your digestive system. Food isn’t breaking down as it should so you get constipated and bloated, and it isn’t being absorbed properly so you feel nauseated and fatigued.
One of the kefir benefits is that it contains active cultures and bacteria, more so than standard yogurt; these help to break down foods so they can be absorbed in your digestive system. Better digestion means a stronger immune system, less fatigue and bloating, and regular bowel movements.
Remember, too, that you get all the benefits of the milk you use to make kefir yogurt, including protein, high concentrations of vitamins A and B12 from almond milk, and lots of B vitamins from coconut milk. If you make water kefir, you can still enjoy its benefits to your digestive system but without added calories, and without the harshness of over-the-counter laxatives or prescription medications. This can be a good choice for those with especially sensitive stomachs or for those who cannot take prescription laxatives, such as children and women who are expecting.
- Are there any cautions to using kefir?
As always, you want to talk to your doctor about changes to your diet if you’re being treated for any intestinal disorder or are taking any prescription medications. Pregnant women and those who are nursing might also discuss if they should use milk kefir grains with their doctor, even though they are a natural substance and shouldn’t interfere with pregnancy or breastfeeding. Also, if you’re having chronic stomach problems including indigestion and constipation, and especially if you’re in consistent pain or have bleeding during bowel movements, be sure to talk to your doctor and arrange for a thorough medical exam.
Now that you know a little bit more about kefir grains and how to use them, and the kefir health benefits you might enjoy, are you ready to try it? It’s a great alternative to store-bought yogurt, and making your own kefir yogurt allows you to control its sugar content, calories, and even the amount of protein in each mix. For vegans, it’s a great alternative to dairy yogurt as you can use almond, soy, or coconut milk, or even water to make your own kefir yogurt. Once you get your first batch mixed, you might find that it’s the natural solution you need for better digestion, less fatigue, and better overall health!