It is no secret that ulcerative colitis and Crohn’s disease are on the rise, and a new study traces how a diet high in saturated fats (a typical Western diet high in saturated fats found in dairy products, that also includes baked goods and processed foods) may increase the chance of an imbalance in the gut microbes. According to a recent article in Scientific American‘s Health Blog by Katherine Harmon,

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.


The word “inflammatory” literally means relating to or causing inflammation of a part of the body. In Dr. Chang’s study, mice with a genetic predisposition for intestinal disease were used to reveal the effects of a diet high in dairy and saturated fats, vs. a group of the same genetic predisposition fed a diet low in saturated fats.

The mice that were genetically predisposed and fed a diet high in dairy and saturated fat, developed a harmful bacteria with the extremely poetic name (I’ll have to look this up later!) Bilophila wadsworthia, also found in patients with intestinal diseases. In fact, the team at the University of Chicago found that the mice with the increase in harmful bacteria went on to develop an immuno-activated response that created subsequent inflammation.

What can we learn from this study?
First of all, I want to applaud Dr. Chang and his team, and excellent reporting by Ms. Harmon and the publishers of Nature/Scientific American. Those of us who live DAILY with inflammatory bowel disease are anticipating that this knowledge will help us find a cure that doesn’t depend on drugs to suppress the entire immune system (which often creates other health problems).

What can we do now?
As a layperson and author who struggles with Crohn’s-Colitis, I follow blogs and scientific journals with the zeal of a medical student doing a GI rotation. Call me crazy, but I’ll be damned if I am going to sit around getting sicker and waiting for the doctors to complete long term trials and simulations. We can start by eating a simple, structured diet: what I like to refer to as a diet with my new book’s title: “Eat Food With One Ingredient.” (Watch for two new book announcements from my publisher, Hatherleigh Press, distributed by Random House, in 2013.)

Next, we can keep a food journal and eliminate dairy for three days and see if that helps, then record what you eat—usually small frequent meals are best: oatmeal in the a.m., followed by hard-boiled egg at 10:30, lunch is a spinach salad with turkey and a rice cake, afternoon snack can be raisins and almonds, or carrots and pure humus with garlic and lemon, and dinner is beans and rice with steamed broccoli (if tolerated, naturally, as everyone is different!)

I have not eaten wheat for seven years, and that has been just a great benefit, though I still love dairy products, like cheese and yogurt. What I recommend is cutting back on dairy, switching to lower fat cheeses like provolone, and making your own yogurt by following the SCD diet book, Breaking the Vicious Cycle, a groundbreaking book by Elaine Gottshalk, that may have been ahead of its time.

Adding probiotics to your diet with a daily supplement is also a great way to help balance the gut microbial balance….. I use Ultra Flora Probiotics, or New Chapter, or now that I am traveling, the great Jarrow product in the photo, Jarro-Dophilus EPS, with 5 billion organisms per capsule.

Don’t forget to exercise, eat a balance diet with small frequent meals, keep a food journal daily, get lots of sleep, and add holistic and complementary treatments to your lifestyle, like acupuncture, daily yoga and meditation. Good luck and I hope some of my blog’s followers will comment on what works for them. Stay healthy! I’m going for a bike ride in Barcelona, where I am visiting my son (he has been living here for three years, and now that I am fairly stable in keeping my IBD in remission, I can visit him!)