When you pursue healthy eating, there are a couple of very easily understandable principles. For instance, you should avoid some foods completely, and you should eat relatively lot from other ones. It might be challenging to actually do it, but at least it is theoretically uncomplicated. However, there are concepts that are a little bit more difficult, even on paper. A good example for that is when you have to maintain a certain ratio between two nutrients. The rules of fat consumption are good illustrations of both of these groups.
As far as the brain is concerned, fat plays an important role, but there are several common misconceptions with respect to this topic. That being the case, let’s examine precisely how you can satisfy your brain’s requirements, so that it can perform its best.
Fat isn’t just fat
The human brain is rich in fat, that is very much true. Based on that it sounds logical that it requires fat to work properly. However, just because you eat sugar-free whipped cream or cheese, you won’t support your brain with its everyday endeavors.
There are several different type of fats and a lot of them can be categorized as non-essential ones. The reason behind that is your brain can actually make as much of certain fats as it needs, and resupplying with food is completely unnecessary. You can find saturated fats in meat or cheese and this exact same type of fat is in your brain as well, but not because it was absorbed from these foods, but because your brain produced it. In case of monounsaturated fats, it is pretty much the same, since they are largely made inside the brain as well. (1) Next time you look at a sizzling slice of bacon, remember that your brain says:
So what kind of fats does your brain crave for? Just to don’t make your life too easy, the rarest ones, the Polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFA). These are the only type of fats that the brain must obtain from food sources. If you don’t consume adequate amount of PUFAs, you definitely won’t support your brain to perform at its best. This is exceptionally true for the Omega-3s and Omega-6s fatty acids. (2) But does it mean the more you eat from these fats, the more grateful your brain will be? Unfortunately this not that easy. However, before we further discuss it, let’s examine two easier principles that you should pay attention to, when you think about your fat intake.
Trans fat: The indisputable public enemy
There are several controversial topics in healthy eating, and dietary trends usually come and go. However, this one is a pretty straightforward statement that nobody can really deny: trans-saturated fats are not good for you. This type of fat can be the reason behind several health related issues, and your brain is not an exception.
Several studies suggest that trans fats can increase the risk of cognitive decline and dementia. Actually, you don’t really have to consume too much of them to put yourself in danger. According to researches, people who consumed only 2 grams of trans fats daily, doubled their chances to developed cognitive impairments. Just to give you a good example to illustrate what that means: If you add 1 serving of a common non-dairy creamer to your coffee, you have already reached 1.5 grams. (Of course there exceptions, depending on the different brands). In addition, studies also found that higher intake of trans-saturated fats can result in poorer memory (3) (4) (5) (6) Unfortunately several people consume significantly more than 2 grams per day.
So trans fats are obviously not good for your general or brain health, but what are they exactly and which foods contain them?
Manufacturers conduct an industrial process, the so called hydrogenation, to obtain this type of fat. During the process they add hydrogen to unsaturated vegetable oils, so they chemically saturating them. This way they can grant certain food products a longer shelf life. Foods that often have a high trans fat content (there can be exceptions depending on the brands):
- Vegetable Shortening
- French Fires
- Mozarella Sticks
- Fish Sticks
- Non-Dairy Coffee Creamer
- Microwaveable Popcorn
So the advice here is easy: simply try to avoid trans fats as much as it is possible.
Saturated fat: The debatable evil
You can read numerous articles that support the unlimited eating of foods that are high in saturated fats. However, in the scientific community there are several studies that suggest the exact opposite. While they are definitely not as dangerous as trans fats, high levels of saturated fats can have a negative impact on your mental capacities.
As I’ve already mentioned, the brain doesn’t really need saturated fats from food sources. It does obtain a higher amount of this type of fat when you are very young, but after adolescence the vast majority will be produced within the brain. However, excessive consumption of saturated fats can lead to inflammation in your body and reduced oxygen flow to the brain. Since the brain heavily depends on oxygen, even a modest set back in the circulation can significantly hurt its performance.
A study of more than 800 partakers showed that those who consumed a lot of saturated fats had four times the risk of developing cognitive deterioration, compared to participants who ate low amounts. (7)
Your body needs some saturated fat to stay healthy, but as you can see it is definitely not one of the most valuable brain nutritions. Nowadays plenty of nutritionists recommend no more than 5-6 percent of calories from saturated fat per day. For instance, if you consume about 2000 calories daily, it is ideal to limit your calorie intake from saturated fats to about 120 calories. That is approximately three slices of bacon. (13 grams)
Foods that are high in saturated fat:
- Whipped cream
- Dried coconut
- Fatty meats
- Processed meats
- Palm oil
- Whole milk
In conclusion, you shouldn’t avoid saturated fats completely, but try not to consume too much of them.
Polyunsaturated fats: The potential good guys
Let’s get back to the PUFAs and the two most important varieties for your brain: Omega-3s and Omega-6s. You need to provide your body with both of them, since they have completely different functions. (And as I’ve already written, your brain can’t produce them without external sources.)
Omega-6s have proinflammatory properties. This is extremely important, since inflammation means how activated your immune system is, so it determines how protected you are from danger. In simple terms, Omega-6s encourage our brains to mount an inflammatory response when you have a wound or infection. In contrary, the Omega-3s have anti-inflammatory properties. As a result, they turn down this response once there is no more danger.
If you want to maintain proper neuron communication and a healthy immune system, you should definitely pay attention to the balance of these two PUFAs. If you fail to do that, it can lead to unnecessarily sustained inflammation, or reduced capacity to fight against diseases. Consequently a disruption to this balance can result in brain damage in the long term. (8)
There is only one way to maintain this balance: you have to choose the right foods in the right amounts. According to researches, twice the amount of omega-6 to omega-3 is the perfect ratio. (9) Unfortunately it is not easy to keep up this proportion, since most people eat about twenty or thirty times more omega-6s to omega 3-s. For that reason, the typical western pattern diet is highly inflammatory. (10)
If you don’t eat enough omega-3s, but you consume too much omega-6s you put yourself at risk of many diseases, like:
- Neurological disorders such as Alzheimer’s
- Autoimmune diseases
- Vascular diseases
Omega-6s – You probably need to reduce your intake
Generally speaking, it is usually much easier to obtain Omega-6s from food sources than Omega-3s, which explains this issue. Very common foods, like fatty animal products or sun flower oil, are naturally high in this type of fat. Of course, you don’t need to completely eliminate them from your diet, but moderation is very important.
Top 5 plant sources:
- Grapeseed oil
- Sunflower oil
- Wheat germ oil
- Corn oil
- Soybean oil
Top 5 animal sources:
- Turkey fat
- Chicken fat
- Duck fat
- Pork belly
Omega-3s You likely need more of them
In addition, it turns out omega-3 consumption is evident in brain scans as well. As a result of aging, the brain naturally looses some volume. However, according to a study of more than 1000 cognitively healthy participants suggests that those who didn’t consume adequate amount of omega-3s had accelerated brain shrinkage, based on the MRIs. In case of these individuals, the memory center of the brain lost neurons at a rate equal to 2 extra years of aging. In conclusion, not enough omega-3s = increased speed at which the brain ages. (15)
Top 5 plant sources:
- Flaxseed oil
- Hemp seeds
- Butternuts, dried
- Chia seeds
Top 5 animal sources:
- Caviar, black
- Salmon roe
- Wild salmon
Ideally you want to provide your body with adequate amount of omega-3s every day through food sources. However, in case you can’t incorporate these foods to your daily diet, supplementation can be an easy and convenient solution. When you choose a fish oil supplement try to opt for a product that is crafted from wild-caught fish. It is really important, because farm raised fish has a lower nutritional value. Also, just like in case of every supplement, try to select something that doesn’t contain artificial colors, flavors or preservatives. Nordic Naturals Ultimate Omega, the #1 best seller omega-3 products in Amazon, with a five-star-rating based on more than 16500 votes, can be a perfect choice for you.
As you can see, it is very important to understand the difference between the different type of fats.
- Your brain only needs polyunsaturated fatty acids from external food sources
- You should avoid trans fats as much as it is possible
- You should only consume low amount of saturated fats
- Consume twice the amount of omega-6 to omega-3, which is usually achieved by reducing your omega-6, and increasing your omega-3s intake
- Keep in mind that omega-3 fatty acids are the most valuable fats if you want to boost and protect your brain