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Saturated Fats Change Gut Bacteria–and May Raise Risk for Inflammatory Bowel Disease

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saturated fat western diet milk gut microbiome inflammatory bowel disease colitis risk

Image courtesy of iStockphoto/ValentynVolkov

The relationship between food and a gastro-intestinal disease might sound simple. But new research is revealing that what we put into our bodies can cause a cascade of complex interactions among various systems—from metabolism to the immune system—that keep us well or make us sick.

And it appears that a popular component of the classic Western diet—saturated fats—has likely contributed to the increase in colitis cases.

Colitis, swelling of the large intestine that can cause pain and diarrhea, seems to run in families, but not everyone with the genetic risk gets it. So scientists have presumed that an environmental trigger initiates the disease. “Moving from elevated risk to the development of the disease seems to require a second event, which may be encountered because of our changing lifestyle,” according to Eugene Chang, a professor of medicine at the University of Chicago and co-author of a new study published online June 13 in Nature (Scientific American is part of Nature Publishing Group).

Chang and his colleagues traced how saturated fats, particularly those from dairy, which are also present in many baked goods and processed foods, can change the composition of naturally harmless bacteria communities in the gut. As the balance of species shifts, it can trigger an immune response that results in inflammation and tissue damage.

“This is the first plausible mechanism showing step-by-step how Western-style diets contribute to the rapid and ongoing increase in the incidence of inflammatory bowel disease,” Chang said.

The team first found that mice with a genetic predisposition to get a colitis-like condition were more likely to get the disease when they were fed on a diet that contained concentrated milk fats (in similar proportion to that found in a common Western diet: about 37 percent of calories). A diet high in these fats encourages the growth of the harmful microbe Bilophila wadsworthia, which has also often been found in high levels in patients who have an inflammatory bowel and other intestinal inflammations. But how is diet fostering the growth of these microbes?

Saturated fats are difficult to break down, so the intestinal tract gets help from sulfur-rich bile provided by the liver. Many bacteria find sulfur an unpleasant element. But the B. wadsworthia bacteria happen to love sulfur. As the gut gets more sulfurous, this species thrives. Indeed, the researchers found that mice that were fed low levels of fat or unsaturated fats had an infinitesimal amount of these bacteria in their guts (for healthy humans the proportion is somewhere around 0.01 percent). But for mice that were getting the saturated milk fat, B. wadsworthia made up about 6 percent of the total gut microbiome. This unwelcome prevalence can trigger the immune system to attack in those mice with a genetic propensity for the disease, initiating a state of inflammation and subsequent damage. The result for humans can be lasting bowel troubles.

To make matters worse, the bacteria’s waste can weaken the intestines’ walls, making it easier for the immune system to do more unintended damage to the tissue.

So far treatments for colitis have been hit and miss. Doctors often prescribe anti-inflammatory medication and sometimes an immune suppressant, although these can be dangerous, leaving a patient more vulnerable to infection. But the new findings suggest that addressing the balance of the microbiome might help quiet the condition. “The balance between host and microbes can be altered back to a healthy state to prevent or treat these diseases,” Chang said. “In essence, the gut microbiome can be ‘reshaped’ in sustainable and predictable ways that restore a healthy relationship between host and microbes, without significantly affecting the lifestyles of individuals who are genetically prone to these diseases.”

What can the average person do to achieve a better balance? “We are testing that right now,” Chang said. There are of course “probiotic” products advertised to improve gut flora and more experimental treatments, such as parasitic worms and fecal transplants, but the research is still in its early phases. It seems like cutting back on saturated fat wouldn’t hurt as a first step.

Katherine Harmon Courage About the Author: Katherine Harmon Courage is a freelance writer and contributing editor for Scientific American. Her book Octopus! The Most Mysterious Creature In the Sea is out now from Penguin/Current. Follow on Twitter @KHCourage.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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  1. 1. RockyBob 12:07 pm 06/15/2012

    “Saturated fats, particularly from dairy…” Ummm, are fats with a full set of hydrogen atoms, as opposed to the wonderful Omega 3 fat that is missing one single hydrogen atom, the culprit, OR are we talking about lactose intolerance? How was the “saturated fat, particularly from dairy” produced? What is the difference between a “particularly from dairy” saturated fat and a regular saturated fat? I’d be surprised if the feed to these susceptible rats was pure saturated fat with neither lactose, carbohydrates or any of the other fat molecules normally always present in “fats”. As one sage asked, “if saturated fats are so bad, why does the human body make so much of it, and so little of the other fats?”
    Implicating fat when so many mammals (including many indigenous humans) live exclusively of fat laden meat, seems a stretch.

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  2. 2. klairemagee 10:08 am 06/22/2012

    I had an attack after eating more than a half of a strawberry pie. The crust was quite thick and filled with fat. I have eaten Ice cream in large amounts (regular fat) and had no reactions like the pie crust produced. I have eaten home made chili rellenos fried in olive oil and had an attack. In the cases above, I think the problem is the excess. I knew I was pushing the limit with the large amount that I ate.

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  3. 3. RyanBallow 9:21 am 02/23/2014

    Klairemagee – You’ll have to excuse my intolerance for American governmental food conditioning (grrr!!). Your issue is not related to the fat present in the pie crust. Pie crust is typically a plethora of indigestible (or gut problematic) grains and proteins that are well known (to people reading very modern science) to cause issues in humans. Wheat for one, is just atrocious on most people’s stomachs. It’s laughable these days when a serious MD advises patients to eat “whole wheat” products, or wheat products in general. I’d read “wheat belly,” and study the plethora of N = 1 experiments and experiences within the Paleo food movement. — This blog post is remarkably devoid of new science, and fittingly aligned with the traditional “fat is bad” mantra. It has “outdated, incorrect, government induced” information written all over it.

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