Short chain fatty acids are critical compounds – produced by the bacteria in your gut. They play a key role in health and offer various benefits.
But, most of us don’t look for short chain fatty acid foods. You might not even know what the best foods are or where they come from.
That’s where this list comes in.
We take a brief look at why the fatty acids are so important and show you how to get them into your diet.
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What Are They?
Short chain fatty acids are a type of fat in your body and diet. The chain length is a reference to the number of carbon atoms (C) in the backbone of the compound.
- Short chain fatty acids (SCFA): 5 or fewer carbon atoms
- Medium chain fatty acids (MCFA): 6 to 12 carbon atoms
- Long chain fatty acids (LCFA): 13 to 21 carbon atoms
- Very long chain fatty acids (VLCFA): 22 or more carbon atoms
Short chain fatty acids are produced through the fermentation of fiber. They provide energy to your colon cells, making them particularly relevant to colon health (1). They also help metabolize fats and carbs (2).
There are three main types of short chain fatty acids and they all have roles for your health.
- Acetate (C2)
- Propionate (C3)
- Butyrate (C4)
We’ve talked about butyrate on this site before but not the other two.
Why Do Short Chain Fatty Acids Matter?
Promoting colon health is the key reason for increasing levels of short chain fatty acids. But, there are other advantages too. Many of these apply to specific health conditions.
- Decreases inflammation. Short chain fatty acids, including butyrate, can reduce inflammation in the body (3,4).
- Promotes weight loss. Obesity is associated with changed gut bacteria composition (5,6). Short chain fatty acids may help to improve gut bacteria and insulin sensitivity to encourage weight loss (7,8).
- Improves the immune system. The anti-inflammatory effects are significant for your immune system but short chain fatty acids can have direct impacts too. For example, butyrate plays a role in the development and production of regulatory T-cells (9).
- Reduces diarrhea. Research shows that the fatty acids can help lower diarrhea in children (10,11). Similar effects may occur for adults too.
- May decrease cancer risk. Some studies suggest that short chain fatty acids may lower cancer risk, particularly for colon cancer (12,13,14).
- Improves diabetes outcomes. The fatty acids can help to promote improved blood sugar control (15,16,17), although more research is needed.
- Promotes heart health. Short chain fatty acids can have various implications for heart health. This includes potentially decreasing cholesterol production (18), along with the inflammation lowering effects (19).
Beyond all of this, foods that promote short chain fatty acids are good for you. They will offer various important nutrients and help promote health in a range of ways.
Short Chain Fatty Acid Foods
The fatty acids are produced in your gut through fermentation. You don’t typically get them through your diet.
Research shows that fiber and resistant starch are particularly relevant for increasing levels of short chain fatty acids (20). Likewise, a diet high in plant foods leads to more short chain fatty acids (21).
There are some ways to get short chain fatty acids directly, which we’ll cover later on.
But, the main goal is simply to increase your production of short chain fatty acids.
Foods to Promote Short Chain Fatty Acids
Food may not be a good source of these compounds but there are plenty of ways to increase your short chain fatty acid levels.
Fiber is the most significant way to do so. But, there are many different types of fiber. Each type has its own implications for health. To account for this, the list below focuses on the most powerful types of fiber for short chain fatty acid levels (22,23), along with various foods that contain the fiber.
Inulin is a prebiotic fiber. It helps promote gut health and may offer many other benefits as well. Dr. Axe has a detailed article about why inulin is so powerful. That piece is worth reading if you want to know more about inulin.
But basically, inulin is a soluble fiber and is a type of fructan.
The most prevalent source of inulin is the chicory plant. You can also find inulin in fresh herbs, dandelion root, yacon root and garlic. Those aren’t particularly good dietary sources of inulin, partly because you wouldn’t consume much at a time.
Thankfully, there are some other useful inulin sources.
- Bananas. The inulin content of ripe bananas is relatively small. But, they do have some and they make an easy snack. Plantains contain inulin as well.
- Rye and barley. These grains contain some inulin. Bread made with rye flour can be a good way to increase your inulin intake, especially if you eat bread regularly.
- Sprouted wheat. Inulin can also be found in sprouted wheat. The Kitchn talks more about sprouted grains and their implications. You’ll also find sprouted wheat in Ezekiel bread.
- Jerusalem artichoke. This particular type of artichoke is especially significant for inulin. Regular artichokes still contain some inulin but you don’t get nearly as much inulin per serving.
- Asparagus. Many recipes take advantage of asparagus, making this an easy way to increase your inulin intake.
- Onions. Onions also contain some inulin. You probably won’t consume large quantities of onions at a time but they’re easy to add into your meals.
Pectin is a key type of dietary fiber. It’s been associated with slower gastric emptying and decreased absorption of glucose (24), factors that are both important for health.
The fiber plays a role in cooking too. It is commonly used to create jellies and jams – and most such recipes rely on at least one high pectin ingredient. Pectin is significant because it has a thickening function
Fruits are the most predominant sources of pectin – typically containing between 5% and 10% pectin.
- The highest pectin fruits include peaches, apples, oranges, grapefruit and apricots.
- Citrus fruits are particularly powerful for pectin, although the amount can change based on variety. Citrus peel is even more effective as a source of pectin.
- In contrast, soft fruit like cherries and strawberries typically contain much lower levels of pectin.
Some other types of food offer pectin as well.
- Carrots are the highest vegetable source of pectin, with one large carrot containing around 0.58 grams of pectin (25).
- Tomatoes (0.37 grams for a medium tomato) and potatoes (0.64 for a medium potato) are also useful sources of pectin (26).
- Peas are the highest legume sources of pectin, containing almost a gram of pectin per cup serving (27).
- Grains can also be a good source of pectin.
Finally, you’ll find pectin in some processed or prepared foods because it can help stabilize recipes.
Fructooligosaccharides are mostly used as alternative sweeteners. But, you do find them in foods, including various fruits and vegetables.
Key examples include bananas, garlic, asparagus, leeks, onions and chicory root. The compounds can also be found in some cereals and grains, such as barley and wheat (28).
The most concentrated sources of fructooligosaccharides are the Jerusalem artichoke, yacon and blue agave. But, many people won’t be eating these regularly.
Resistant starch has become exceptionally popular as a health food and may offer many advantages. The site Mark’s Daily Apple provides a detailed guide on the topic, including the various types of resistant starch.
The basic concept is what the name suggests – starch that is resistant to digestion. Resistant starch is particularly relevant to gut health and may have other advantages too.
Whole food sources of the starch include the following:
- Green bananas. Resistant starch is the main reason that green bananas are thought to be so good for you. Green bananas can also help lower blood sugar levels (a topic that Healthline highlights). Many people also prefer the taste of green bananas compared to yellow ones.
- Plantains. These offer another source of resistant starch, although they can be a little harder to find.
- Rice and potatoes. These two ingredients are both good sources of resistant starch. They’re particularly powerful if they have been cooked and then cooled. Raw potatoes and parboiled rice are also viable sources of resistant starch.
- Legumes. Legumes are another interesting choice for resistant starch. Once again, you’ll get the most benefits if these have been cooked and then cooled.
You can also find isolated sources of starch. Examples include raw potato starch, tapioca starch, green banana flour and plantain flour. These may contain fewer other nutrients but they could be particularly relevant for cooking.
This is a less common type of starch and is particularly significant in cereal grains (29). Wheat bran is one of the best choices for this fiber, although you can find it in other types of grain too.
Getting Short Chain Fatty Acids Directly
Some foods do also contain short chain fatty acids directly. The main source is dairy, which contains butyrate.
For example, butter is roughly 3% to 4% butyric acid. That mightn’t sound like much but it is more than most other foods (30). By extension, ghee also contains butyric acid. Due to the similarities between butter and ghee, ghee should be a good source of butyric acid too.
Of course, you might not be using much butter at a time. If your butter (or ghee) intake is limited, then you mightn’t be getting much butyrate from butter.
Other types of dairy can also be significant. Kefir and yogurt could be particularly important, as these often contain probiotics. Those probiotics can help promote butyrate levels, as long as you don’t have problems with lactose absorption (31).
This means that probiotic dairy acts as a direct and an indirect source of short chain fatty acids.
What About Supplements?
There are also short chain fatty acid supplements. The most common type is butyric acid salts, like sodium butyrate. These give you the fatty acid directly, rather than letting your body produce it.
The pattern sounds more beneficial – but not necessarily.
With this type of supplement, the butyrate is typically absorbed long before the compounds reach your colon. This may mean fewer health benefits.
This type of supplement hasn’t been researched much either. It also just contains one type of fatty acid, which is another limiting factor.
These factors all suggest you’ll get more advantages from whole foods. Supplements might still be useful. But honestly, with so many powerful short chain fatty acids food sources, why bother with supplements?
If you’re already eating a varied diet that relies on whole foods, your short chain fatty acid levels are probably fine. If that’s not the case, you can simply focus on increasing your fiber intake. The foods highlighted above are great ways to do just that.
And, as always, try to have a diverse diet.
Every type of food has its own unique combination of nutrients and plant-based compounds. For example, you find oleic acid in avocados and olive oil, while dark chocolate is rich in many powerful polyphenols.
Choosing a variety of foods gives you access to a wide range of these compounds. This is perhaps the single most important thing you can do to promote your health.
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