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High Fat Diets and Gut Health

In recent years there have been a lot of diet trends that focus on consuming high fats and low carbohydrates. Although most of these have shown promise for effective, short term weight loss regimens, such high fat diets may not be so great for gut health, especially if the wrong types of fats are consumed.

Recent research shows that high fat diets could induce inflammation in the gut, which may increase the risk of chronic inflammatory conditions like heart disease, diabetes, and skin conditions like eczema or psoriasis. Doesn’t sound like a very nice tradeoff, does it? So, let’s learn a bit about the types of fats out there, what they do for gut health, and how you can change your diet to keep your gut as healthy as possible.

Let’s talk about fats, baby

Fat is a necessary nutrient your body needs for absorbing certain vitamins and providing energy. However, not all fats are created equal. The two major types of fat are saturated and unsaturated fats. Saturated fats come from foods such as butter, solid shortening, lard, fatty red meats, high-fat dairy products, as well as any foods made with such fat sources.

It’s these fats that have given this macronutrient a bad name over the years. Between the 1970’s and 1990’s, low-fat diets were all the rage because consuming too much fat was linked with increased risk of heart health issues. More recently, however, fats have been touted as an effective key to weight loss success. Such diets focus on cutting carbohydrates out of the diet and instead eating high fat foods that make you feel fuller longer.

Although saturated fat is not all bad, experts recommend consuming saturated fats in moderation and replacing them with healthier unsaturated fats. Although the evidence is still mild, there is still some suggestion that saturated fats can increase the risk of heart disease when consumed in excess. Experts recommend consuming no more than 10% of calories from saturated fat.

Sources of unsaturated fat include

  • Nuts
  • Seeds
  • Avocado
  • Fatty fish like salmon, sardines, or herring
  • Plant-based oils like peanut, olive, or safflower oil

Fats and gut health

Recent research has shown that aside from heart health risk factors, a diet high in saturated fat can negatively impact gut health. A 2018 study performed a systematic review of research performed regarding the effects of dietary fat on gut microbiota and heart health risk. Study results show that high fat and high saturated fat diets can result in an unhealthy metabolic state and can negatively impact microbiota richness and diversity. This can lead to an imbalance, or dysbiosis, in the gut.

It’s this dysbiosis in the gut microbiome that can increase inflammation and risk of inflammatory chronic diseases like heart disease and diabetes, not to mention inflammatory skin and digestive conditions.  However, other research shows that consuming more healthy unsaturated fats instead of saturated fats can actually improve the intestinal microbiota of obese individuals, restoring it to that of normal weight individuals. Such results reveal the connection between inflammation and conditions like obesity, and how the anti-inflammatory properties of unsaturated fats may help to combat such inflammation.

One by one, more studies are surfacing that show this connection between a high-fat diet and impaired gut health. A 2018 animal study looked at the effect of a high-fat diet on the metabolic health of mice. Study results show that the high-fat diet induced increased serum lipid levels, insulin resistance, and blood glucose levels as time went on in the study. There was also a decrease in gastric (stomach) microbiota and an overall disruption in the microbial ecosystem that seemed to disrupt metabolic health.

Another recent study looked at the impact of varying fat intake on healthy adults. Over 200 young healthy adults were placed on either a low-fat (20% calories from fat), moderate-fat (30% calories from fat), or high-fat diet (40% calories from fat) diet for six months. Study results show that the high fat diet was associated with changes to long-chain fatty acid metabolism, which in turn resulted in elevated levels of pro-inflammatory compounds that could potentially trigger inflammation.

On the other hand, those on the lower fat diet experienced an increased alpha diversity of gut bacteria as well as lower levels of compounds like p-cresol and indole that are known to be linked to metabolic disorders.

How to add healthy fats to your diet

If you feel like you may be consuming too many saturated fats in your diet, and want to reduce inflammation in your diet, use these tips for inspiration.

  • Slice avocado on some whole-wheat toast and top with an egg or scrambled tofu for a morning meal balanced with protein, fiber, and healthy fats. Remember, an avocado a day keeps the inflammation at bay.
  • Drizzle olive oil over fiber and antioxidant rich veggies like broccoli, sweet potatoes, or carrots and roast in the oven for a delicious side dish.
  • Mash avocado and use it instead of mayonnaise in chicken or tuna salad.
  • Add in a serving of salmon once a week for dinner, or use smoked salmon to top salad for lunch.
  • Pack some sardines in your bag as a portable protein and omega-3 rich snack.
  • Top salads with sunflower or pumpkin seeds for extra crunch and healthy fats.
  • Sprinkle omega-3 fatty acid rich chia seeds in yogurt, on toast, on salad, or just about any dish you can imagine for an extra dose of protein, fiber, and antioxidants.

Bottom Line

With so much conflicting advice about dietary fats out there, it can be difficult to know what to eat for optimal health. And although the research out there can be hard to follow, it’s clear that a diet made up of mostly plant-based fats is the most beneficial for both gut health and overall well-being. This doesn’t mean you have to become a vegetarian or vegan to be healthy. Just making small changes in your diet every day to consume more fruits, vegetables, and healthy plant-based fats can make a beneficial difference in the long-term.  You can reduce inflammation, experience less digestive discomfort, and lower your chronic disease risk just by making healthier food choices each day.

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