A high-fat diet is rarely considered beneficial. For people with Crohn's disease, however, such a diet could help to reduce symptoms, as long as the fats consumed are plant-derived.
Researchers found that a diet high in coconut oil, cocoa butter, and other plant-derived fats altered the diversity of gut bacteria in mouse models of Crohn's disease, which was associated with a reduction in intestinal inflammation.
First study author Alexander Rodriguez-Palacios, Ph.D., of Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, OH, and colleagues say that their results suggest that patients with Crohn's disease could reduce their symptoms simply by changing the type of fat in their diet.
Crohn's disease is a type of inflammatory bowel disease characterized by inflammation of the gastrointestinal tract.
According to the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases, Crohn's disease is estimated to affect more than half a million people in the United States. Onset of the condition is most among adults in their 20s.
There is currently no cure for Crohn's disease, but there are medications that can help to reduce gut inflammation, which may ease symptoms. The new study, however, suggests that simple dietary changes may also be effective.
To reach their findings, Dr. Rodriguez-Palacios and team analyzed the effects of two different diets on the guts of mice with Crohn's disease.
One group of mice was fed a diet high in plant-derived, "good" fats - such as coconut oil and cocoa butter - while another group was fed a normal diet.
The researchers found that mice fed the high-fat diet showed up to a 30 percent reduction in the types of bacteria in their guts, compared with mice fed a normal diet, suggesting that a diet high in "good" fats can alter the diversity of gut bacteria.
Importantly, the consumption of "good" fats was also associated with a reduction in gut inflammation, even when eaten in small amounts.
"The finding is remarkable because it means that a Crohn's patient could also have a beneficial effect on their gut bacteria and inflammation by only switching the type of fat in their diet."
Alexander Rodriguez-Palacios, Ph.D.
"Patients would only need to replace a 'bad' fat with a 'good' fat, and eat normal amounts," adds Dr. Rodriguez-Palacios.
Probiotics for Crohn's disease?
Further studies are needed to gain a better understanding of how dietary fats influence the gut bacteria of patients with Crohn's disease, but the researchers believe that their findings could open the door to new treatments for the condition.
"Ongoing studies are now helping us to understand which component of the 'good' and 'bad' fats make the difference in the gut microbes and make mice healthier," says Dr. Rodriguez-Palacios. "Ultimately, we aim to identify the 'good' fat-loving microbes for testing as probiotics."
However, Dr. Rodriguez-Palacios warns that there is unlikely to be a one-size-fits-all approach when it comes to dietary interventions for Crohn's disease.
"Mice [studies] indicate that each person could respond differently. But diet is something we are very hopeful could help at least some patients without the side effects and risks carried by drugs," he says. "The trick now is to really discover what makes a fat 'good' or 'bad' for Crohn's disease."