Inflammatory bowel diseases are life-long reoccurring inflammatory disorders of the gastrointestinal tract and have been increasing in incidence in recent decades, notably in the pediatric population. Although genetic predisposition remains an important factor, this increased incidence most likely reflects an environmental change. One potential contributor to this is the change in dietary fat intake, with dietary intake of n-6 polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFAs) following a similar temporal pattern to the change in inflammatory bowel disease incidence.

Dietary n-6 PUFAs comprise a major, modifiable, environmental factor known to promote a heightened inflammatory response through a number of pathways, including their role as precursors for synthesis of eicosanoids and their inhibitory effect on the synthesis of the n-3 PUFAs eicosapentanoic acid and docosahexanoic acid.

The increase in n-6 PUFA intake affects individuals of all ages, with fetal PUFA accretion and infant dietary PUFA intake from breast milk reflecting maternal dietary intake. A high level of n-6 PUFA in milk results in increased n-6 PUFA in colonic phospholipids and an exaggerated inflammatory response to chemically induced colitis.

Conversely, during development, a diet low in n-6 PUFAs and high in n-3 PUFAs increases colonic n-3 fatty acids, attenuates the inflammatory response, and lowers colonic damage. High dietary n-6 PUFA intake may be an important environmental modifier that contributes to inflammatory bowel diseases.