The word “probiotics” has become a household word that most of us are familiar with.

We may not get the numbers exactly right (there are millions of friendly bacteria in the average probiotic) but we understand the principle of friendly bacteria triumphing over harmful bacteria.

Probiotics help to restore the balance of bacteria in the body and can be used to stave off a number of health problems. This includes helping the digestive system function more efficiently so that the risk for digestive upsets remains low. Having more friendly bacteria in the body can also boost immune function.

Just when we were getting used to the notion of probiotics and improved health, scientists suddenly started talking about prebiotics. So what’s the difference? Probiotics contain live bacteria that travel directly to your gut when you ingest them. Prebiotics, on the other hand, could be thought of as the fuel that good bacteria need to thrive.

Why do we need probiotics and prebiotics? Consider the results of a recent study that looked at the role of prebiotics in the treatment and prevention of obesity. Obesity is a burgeoning problem for all age groups, but the childhood obesity epidemic currently plaguing North America is particularly troublesome.

In Canada alone, 1/3 of the population’s children have an unhealthy body weight. In the U.S., childhood obesity rates have doubled from seven percent in 1980, to 18% in 2010. In both these countries, rates continue to rise.

A recent study has discovered that prebiotics may be an effective weapon in combating obesity—because they might help people lose weight. A research team from Calgary tested prebiotics in overweight or obese adults. Forty-eight people participated in the study. Each received 21 grams of prebiotic fiber every day for 12 weeks. The research team found that the prebiotics ushered in an average fat loss of 1.03 kilograms. When compared with a placebo group who gained 0.45 kilograms over the same time period, this loss of fat proved significant—and can be extremely important in helping people lose weight in the long run.

What makes prebiotics useful in the fight against excess body fat and the number one goal of so many people: to lose weight? You may have noticed that the researchers used prebiotic fiber to supplement the participants’ diets. This fiber feeds the bacteria in your intestines. This bacteria has been linked to whether or not you are the type of person who is going to be overweight, a normal weight, or lean. Feeding these bacteria should help to nudge you more towards the normal or lean range—which is exactly what the researchers found.

What’s even more positive about the results of this study is that the overweight adults involved only lost fat. No muscle mass or bone mass was lost, according to the researchers. That means prebiotic fiber was specifically targeting fat cells in the body—an even more exciting benefit of prebiotics’ ability to help people lose weight.

You can take probiotic fiber supplements to help you lose weight or to help with your weight loss program. You’ll also find “natural” probiotic fiber in the form of inulin in the following foods: asparagus, bananas, garlic, barley, rye, yogurt, and kefir.

Have you ever tried consuming prebiotics to help you lose weight? Did it help with your weight loss goals?