Although many people consider all fats as bad fats, this simply is not the case. Certain types of fats have been linked to the development of chronic diseases, and other fats have been linked to good health. It is clear that not all fats are created equal. But why is that? What happens in the body that produces such a difference in health? A recent study published in The Quarterly Review of Biology suggests that the way different fats interact with our gut microbes may be the answer.

As the Diva of Digestion, this study certainly piqued my interest. The researchers found that saturated fats encourage the growth of harmful bacteria in the digestive system, and our bodies launch an immune response against this, which creates a low level of inflammation. When this low-grade inflammation occurs chronically, disease develops. This is the gut connection, folks. This is a prime example of how gut imbalance can contribute to chronic disease.

Other fats (mostly unsaturated fats), the researchers found, have strong antimicrobial properties, helping to weaken bacteria. Joe Alcock, the lead researcher, explained, “If you expose unsaturated fats on bacteria, the bacteria have a tendency to lyse [disintegrate]. The combination of long chain unsaturated fats, especially omega-3 fatty acids, and innate host defenses like gastric acid and antimicrobial peptides, is particularly lethal to pathogenic bacteria.”

Saturated fats, on the other hand, lack these properties, and can even help harmful bacteria flourish. “We found a highly significant relationship between those fats that had antimicrobial properties and those that had anti-inflammatory properties. Fats that lack antimicrobial properties tended to be pro-inflammatory. It was a very, very strong relationship,” stated Alcock.

The researchers call for more studies to confirm and build upon the current research. “We have a pretty good idea that eating fatty foods encourages the growth and invasiveness of harmful microbiota and we know that certain fats kill off these potentially harmful species. But we’re making a bit of a leap from the Petri dish to the whole organism.” While we wait for more research, we do know that minimizing saturated fats and eating more omega-3 fats is best.