When you hear the word “fat”… what do you think about? Often we automatically associate it with negative health outcomes and society has seemed to have developed a real fat phobia over the past few decades. You can find a fat-free version of just about every product in the grocery store these days. For people who suffer from Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS), fat instead is often associated with digestive discomfort. Here are a few of the reasons why fat can be difficult to digest and irritating for those with IBS…
How is Fat Digestion Effected in IBS?
Some people that suffer from IBS have a particularly hard time digesting fat. Although the exact cause is not known, there are a couple of different reasons why fat digestion is something that many IBS patients struggle with.
The three macronutrients in our diet are carbohydrate, protein and fat. Our body has unique processes to digest each of these 3 very different nutrients and they each take a different amount of time to pass through our digestive system. Carbohydrates are digested first (at the quickest rate), then protein and finally fat. So you can imagine that a meal high in fat can take a lot of work and time for the body to digest. For people with IBS a high fat meal can be a little too much work for a digest system that already is out of sorts.
One of the symptoms of IBS is fast transit time (food moves very quickly through the digestive system, resulting in diarrhea). Fat can stimulate movement in the intestine. If you already have fast transit (mainly patients with diarrhea-predominant IBS), eating a high fat meal can magnify the effect and exacerbate diarrhea.
It’s common for those with small bowel disease to not actually be able to absorb dietary fat very well. When fat isn’t absorbed properly, then it is excreted in the feces (poop!). This not only makes for stinky bowel movements, but it can also cause weight loss and deficiencies in fat-soluble vitamins like Vitamin A, D, E and K.
Why does this happen? When you have a condition like celiac disease (or other small bowel disease) the lining of your small intestine is damaged and inflamed. When the small intestine walls are damaged they can’t produce as much of the enzymes needed for fat digestion. Without these digestive enzymes the fat passes through the digestive system unabsorbed. Similarly in IBS, the small intestine can be inflamed and irritated, which may interfere with its ability to digest fats.
Sometimes Small Intestinal Bacterial Overgrowth (SIBO) is also present in those with IBS. SIBO is the overgrowth of bacteria in the small intestine. Patients who have SIBO struggle to digest fat because the overgrowth of bacteria interferes with bile. (Wondering what bile is and how it helps with fat digestion? Check out the explanation below.) The bacteria present in SIBO can breakdown the bile and prevent it emulsifying fat during digestion.
Bile: Have you ever tried to combine oil and water? The two just won’t mix! Once food is digested in our stomach a similar thing happens. The fat from your last meal separates from the rest of the mixture in your stomach. It then passes into the small intestine where bile salts are released by the gall bladder. Bile salts attach to the fat molecules to emulsify the molecules, allowing them to be digested and absorbed. Without bile salts the fat would be excreted without being digested and absorbed.
Top 3 Tips to Manage Fat in your Diet
There is no other way to put it – fat is an essential part of a healthy diet. Despite what the media may be telling you, not all fat is bad!! But moderation and the type of fat you consume does matter. Let me explain…
Don’t eliminate fat from your diet
Fat is essential for our body to function properly. Here are the main roles that fat plays in our bodies:
- It transports nutrients to the different parts of our bodies
- It helps maintain our body temperature by keeping us warm during those cold winter months (perfect for us Canadians) and helping us stay cool during hot summer months.
- It acts like a protective cushion around our major organs
Health Canada recommends 20-35% of our daily caloric intake to come from fats, in order for our bodies to perform these functions. That equates to about 40-70 grams of fat for the average person (based on an average intake of 1800 kcal).
Include small amounts at each meal
Large amounts of fat can be hard to digest, but it is still important to incorporate it into our diet. For example, rather than eating deep fried fish and chips or a burger and fries, choose grilled fish with those fries or a salad with your burger. Limit high fat foods that you consume at one time and spread fat out throughout the day.
Choose healthy fats
There are 2 types of fats: saturated (the “bad” fats) and unsaturated (the “good” fats).
(there is also Trans fats… but we won’t talk about them today!)
Saturated fats are the ones that can clog arteries, and possibly contribute to heart disease. Common sources of saturated fats include animal proteins, processed junk foods, and fast food. I recommend choosing lean meats, and fat-free dairy products (also lactose-free for those with IBS).
Unsaturated fats are the ones that don’t come with the same negative side effects that saturated fats do. They are good for you and can improve your heart health! Common sources include: olive oil, canola oil, avocado, fish, seafood, nuts and seeds.
An especially important type of unsaturated fat is Omega-3 Fatty Acids. These work within your body to potentially reduce inflammation, and although it isn’t considered an effective remedy for IBS, they may help to improve digestive health.
Low FODMAP Omega-3 Sources
- Salmon, trout, mackerel, anchovies and oysters. (For an easy Low FODMAP salmon recipe, try out my Low FODMAP Salmon en Papillote recipe) (http://www.stephanieclairmont.com/foods-feel-good-low-fodmap-salmon-en-papilote/)
- Chia seeds,
- Omega-3 enriched eggs
But remember, there’s no need to completely cut foods with saturated from your diet. … a little butter in a dish or a moderate portion of beef or other red meat is just fine! Remember to be mindful of your portion and to balance your meal.
And if you’re looking to really improve digestive symptoms of Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS, Crohn’s or Colitis and are looking for food for IBS or food for IBD, than you should consider sticking to the Low FODMAP diet. This diet is temporary but research shows those with IBS and IBD that follow it experience significant improvement. Sign up for the free guide:
Wishing you good gut health & wellness,
Stephanie and the Team
PS. Join me in the free Facebook group Beyond FODMAPs where you can connect with others, get advice and support to help you improve your digestive health and better manage symptoms.