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What to Know About Short Chain Fatty Acids in Food

Medically Reviewed by Dan Brennan, MD on June 16, 2021

Your body makes short-chain fatty acids as a result of processing fiber in your colon during digestion. Short-chain fatty acids are healthy for your body because they can reduce your risk of developing colorectal cancer.

Understanding Short-Chain Fatty Acids

Your body makes many different types of short-chain fatty acids. Two common short-chain fatty acids are called acetate and butyrate. They benefit your body because they reduce inflammation.

How Do Short-Chain Fatty Acids Work?

Your small and large intestines have a layer of cells that is called intestinal epithelium. When you eat more fiber, your body produces short-chain fatty acids to activate these cells.

Other benefits include:

  • Preventing bad bacteria from growing in your intestines
  • Increasing your body’s ability to absorb minerals like calcium
  • Lower your appetite by benefiting your metabolism

Fiber and Short-Chain Fatty Acids

While fiber is found in both plant and animal-based foods, plant-based fiber produces more short-chain fatty acids. Whole grains are also preferable compared to grains ground into flour because they allow your body to produce more short-chain fatty acids.

More of these beneficial short-chain fatty acids are made when we follow a plant-based diet than an animal-based diet. Whole grains left intact, rather than ground into flour, appear to lead to higher production of short-chain fatty acids.

Your body also uses starchy foods to produce short-chain fatty acids, including:

  • Cornmeal
  • Potatoes
  • Pasta
  • Peas and lentils

Gut Bacteria and Short-Chain Fatty Acids

There are many types of microorganisms living in your body. Some benefit you and others pose risks to your health. While bacteria colonize all over your skin and in mucus membranes, they're most concentrated in your gastrointestinal (GI) tract.

The main benefits of gut bacteria include:

  • Protecting you against pathogens
  • Regulating metabolism, hormone production, and immune function
  • Contributing to drug metabolism
  • Communicating with your central nervous system
  • Influencing brain processes

Gut bacteria can affect your health positively or negatively. If you have a good amount of healthy bacteria, it may benefit your health in a positive way.

If you have an overgrowth of bad bacteria, it may leave you at a greater risk for:

  • Depression
  • Alzheimer's disease
  • Parkinson's disease

Some studies have also shown that there are imbalances in gut microbiota in those with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). Some researchers have suggested that microbiota may affect the severity of ASD, although the role of SCFAs in ASD is controversial in the medical field and more research is needed.

You cannot always cure or prevent these health conditions from impacting you. But if you improve your gut health by eating plant-based fiber, you may be able to improve your symptoms related to these conditions.

Short-Chain Fatty Acids and Other Body Processes

Short-chain fatty acids and your brain. While the process isn’t completely understood by medical professionals, your gut communicates with your brain to drive overall body function. There is a correlation between some brain disorders and microbiota imbalances in your gut. It is not clear whether the imbalance contributes to the brain disorder or vice versa.

Short-chain fatty acids and pregnancy. If you’re pregnant, changes to your gut microbiota may impact fetal development.

Factors that contribute to changes in your gut bacteria include:

  • Using antibiotics or probiotics
  • Changes in your diet
  • Immune response to an illness or infection
  • Experiencing stress

What to Know About Fiber

Fiber is considered a complex carbohydrate. As it moves through your digestive tract, it doesn’t break down the way other nutrients do. Instead, it provides bulk to your stool so that it passes through your system effectively:

Soluble fiber. During digestion, soluble fiber absorbs moisture from your body so that stool moves easily through your system.

Soluble fiber is found in foods like:

  • Fruits
  • Vegetables
  • Beans, lentils, peas
  • Whole grains
  • Oats

Insoluble fiber. During digestion, insoluble fiber keeps its content without changing. It helps other waste move through your body and pass without getting clogged up in your system.

Examples of insoluble fiber include:

Dietary recommendations. If you’re a man who is 50 years old or younger, you need 38 grams of fiber per day. Women of the same age need 25 grams per day. Men who are older than 50 years old need 30 grams of fiber per day, and women of the same age need 21 grams.

If you’re not getting enough fiber in your diet, you may be tempted to take fiber supplements. While these can help to bulk up your stool, they don’t provide the same benefits as natural fiber sources. If you want to make sure your body makes an adequate amount of short-chain fatty acids, focus on adding more fruits and vegetables to your diet.

Show Sources

SOURCES:

Frontiers in Endocrinology: “The Role of Short-Chain Fatty Acids From Gut Microbiota in Gut-Brain Communication.”

Mayo Clinic: “Dietary fiber: Essential for a healthy diet.”

Nutrition Facts: “Short-chain Fatty Acids.”

Utah State University: “Fiber for Seniors.”

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