Q: What are probiotics, and should I be taking them? -- Sally G., Boise, Idaho
A: If you're pregnant or breastfeeding, the answer is a strong YES. Pregnant moms and their breastfed children have fewer infections and days of diarrhea if Mom is taking probiotics. And almost weekly, new info comes out demonstrating how these friendly bacteria that live in our guts are essential for good health.
What do these beneficial bugs do? (There are trillions of them, outnumbering the cells in our body 10-to-1.) They help prevent colitis-related colon cancer, protect you from food poisoning, strengthen the immune system, ward off allergies and colds, ease eczema, stop diarrhea and irritable bowel syndrome, protect against heart attacks, increase longevity and may even decrease depression and other mood-related disorders.
In addition, probiotics aid digestion by breaking down sugars -- called polysaccharides -- and amino acids in proteins. Some of the bacteria even produce vitamins and act as anti-inflammatories, reducing the risk of everything from arthritis to clogged arteries.
So here's what we say about eating probiotic-rich foods and taking supplements.
1. Healthy gut bacteria -- even if you take supplements and eat yogurt -- depend on your overall diet to supply what they need to thrive. That includes plenty of fiber from veggies, 100 percent whole grains and fruit, and a well-balanced mix of vitamins and other nutrients. Too many of one (like the B vitamin choline) can keep the bugs from doing their good work.
2. Yogurt and other cultured foods deliver billions of bifidobacterium, streptococcus thermophiles and lactobacillus (particularly acidophilus), but they hardly dent the trillions already there. The bugs you eat do help digestion, but don't change the overall composition of your intestinal bacteria colony; stop eating the yogurt, and the bacteria it delivers go away after about two weeks.
3. We favor daily supplements that can make it through the stomach acid to your guts. The spore-containing Digestive Advantage (now combined with the company's brand Sustenex, which we also like) contains bacillus coagulans GBI-30, 6086, and Culturelle has lactobacillus GG, which is activated by stomach acid.
Q: I don't know what to do. My sons, 12 and 14, are putting on weight. I'm a single mom and have a 9-to-5 job. I can't keep them on a leash. How can I get them to eat better and walk away from the computer? -- Amanda K., Charleston, W.V.
A: You have options, and you're not alone. We'll give you some suggestions, but if you need more support, community hospitals from Newark, N.J., to Cleveland and San Diego to Boston are using the family approach to confront the rising tide of childhood obesity.
To emulate these programs at home, we suggest:
Be the psychologist. Talk to your kids about why being overweight is a problem for their health and their future employment opportunities. Explain how you are in it together, as a family, and what you are going to do about it.
Be the dietician. To prevent unhealthy impulse purchases, before you go to the store, decide about healthy foods that you're going to eat this week. A shopping list helps.
Be the exercise guru. Lead a 10-minute (or more) family walk before breakfast. Plan another activity after school and work: bicycle, play soccer, baseball, basketball, any activity that gets everyone up and moving.
Be the master chef -- and sign up your sous chefs. Planning and preparing meals with your kids gets them interested in eating all sorts of foods. You can find teenager-friendly recipes in our book "YOU: The Owner's Manual For Teens."
(Mehmet Oz, M.D. is host of "The Dr. Oz Show," and Mike Roizen, M.D. is Chief Medical Officer at the Cleveland Clinic Wellness Institute. Submit your health questions at www.doctoroz.com.)