For people suffering from Crohn’s disease, here is one of the most recent — and possibly most dramatic — breakthroughs in its treatment: Good fats can bring about positive changes in your gut bacteria, decreasing the symptoms of this debilitating, long-term condition. One caveat, though, is that the fat must be derived from plants. Scientists say eating a diet containing high amounts of coconut oil and other plant-based fat lowers gut inflammation, which causes damage to your health in a number of ways.

According to Medical News Today, patients with Crohn’s disease — which, according to the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases (NIDDK),1 affects half a million people in the U.S. — could decrease their symptoms with one simple tweak in their diet: changing the type of fat they eat. Here’s how it works, as first study author Dr. Alexander Rodriguez-Palacios and his colleagues wrote:

“A high fat diet may lead to specific changes in gut bacteria that could fight harmful inflammation — a major discovery for patients suffering from Crohn’s disease, research indicates. Crohn’s disease, a type of inflammatory bowel syndrome, causes debilitating intestinal swelling, cramping and diarrhea.”2

‘Remarkable’ Findings, Researchers Say

Scientists used animal models (mice), which were given two different diets. One group was fed “good” fats, such as coconut oil and cocoa butter. The other group was given a “normal” diet. Study authors wrote:

“Mice fed beneficial fatty diets had up to [30] percent fewer kinds of gut bacteria as those fed a normal diet, collectively resulting in a very different gut microbial composition … Mice fed even low concentrations of coconut oil or cocoa butter also had less severe small intestine inflammation.”3

Interestingly, a portion at the opening of the intestine, called the cecum, is where Crohn’s disease typically causes the most inflammation, and that was an area positively impacted by coconut oil on the subjects in the study. The decrease in intestinal inflammation caused by consuming healthy fats was just as dramatic even when the fats were eaten in small amounts.

One of the most significant points the scientists discussed from their research was in regard to the way good fats impacted the composition of gut microbes. Rodriguez-Palacios noted that all (human) patients need to do to glean similar effects in their bodies is to “replace a ‘bad’ fat with a ‘good’ fat, and eat normal amounts.”

Gut Bacteria Changes When Coconut Oil Is Introduced

The featured study, conducted at Case Western Reserve University School of Medicine in Cleveland, was one of the first to identify specific changes in gut bacteria as impacted by Crohn’s disease, and the first to show that the type of fats people eat directly influences the diversity of their gut bacteria, and that, in turn, modulates the severity and even presence of the disease.

Rodriguez-Palacios said he believes the findings could help doctors identify beneficial bacteria that could treat patients with ongoing inflammatory bowel disorders and said the next move will be to identify which components in said good and bad fats make the difference in gut microbes — and use the good ones in anti-inflammatory probiotics testing. In addition, one of their findings was that consuming different types of fats may not have the same effects in everyone. He noted:

“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. The trick now is to really discover what makes a fat ‘good’ or ‘bad’ for Crohn’s disease.”4

Besides the coconut oil and cocoa butter used in the study as good fats, scientists also used other delicious sources of good fats such as avocados, nuts (particularly macadamias, pecans and walnuts), salmon (and note that wild-caught Alaskan salmon is the healthiest variety) and extra-virgin olive oil.