Eating brain-healthy foods – especially the right kind of fats – can have a tremendous impact on your brain and overall health. From brain function to metabolism to cardiovascular fitness, fat is an absolutely essential macronutrient for your entire body.
Fat Is Not the Villain
Science has debunked the “low-fat is best” line of thinking time and time again. In fact, research has shown that eating a low-fat diet actually increases your risk of dementia.
You don’t get fat from eating fat – not even from eating more fat and exercising less the way calorie-focused diet culture portrays. Studies show that being fat causes you eat to more and exercise less due to elevated hormone levels, like insulin and leptin. These hormones make your fat cells “hungrier” and your body more inflamed and fatigued. High-glycemic carbohydrates are the drivers of the hormonal cascade leading this process, not fat. A high-fat diet can even reset and speed up your metabolism.
Your body’s cellular integrity and nutrient exchange depend on fats. Your cells would literally collapse and starve to death without them. Cholesterol, unsaturated, and even saturated fats are all a crucial to vital bodily processes. It’s important for you to give your body the different kinds of fats it needs in the right amounts.
What Kind of Fat Does Your Brain Need?
Your brain needs essential fatty acids (EFAs) to function properly. Because your body can’t produce them, you have to get EFAs from your diet. The two primary EFAs are linoleic acid (omega-6) and alpha-linolenic acid (omega-3). You get omega-6 mostly from plant oils such as corn, soybean, and sunflower, as well as from nuts and seeds.
Omega-3 fats are especially important for improving brain function, inflammation, and vision among many other things. There are three main types of omega-3s:
- ALA can be found in foods like chia and flax seed.
- EPA and DHA are naturally found in marine food sources, including fatty fish – salmon, tuna, mackerel, herring – shellfish, and marine algae.
As you may know, the saturated and trans fats found in abundance in processed and fast foods are known to raise blood levels of unhealthy cholesterol. According to Dr. Francine Grodstein, associate professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School and associate epidemiologist at Brigham and Women’s Hospital.:
We know that’s bad for your heart. There is now a lot of evidence that it’s also bad for your brain.”
Fats to Avoid
Vegetable and seed oils
Canola, corn, soybean, grapeseed, safflower, peanut oil, palm, cottonseed, and vegetable oils should all be avoided as they’ are highly processed, many of them are GMO, and they contribute to inflammation in the body due to their fatty acid profiles. These types of oils are the kind most frequently used in most restaurants, especially for frying, but they can also be in seemingly healthy foods – like salad dressings. You have to read the ingredient labels on food. When eating out, don’t be a be afraid to ask what oils are used in the food and request a healthier alternative.
Anything hydrogenated or partially hydrogenated
Hydrogenating is a chemical process where vegetable oils are turned into solid fats (like margarine and vegetable shortening) for easier use in packaged and prepared goods. The process actually converts the oils into trans fats, which are extremely bad for you. Science shows these fats increase LDL cholesterol, decrease HDL cholesterol, promote insulin resistance and inflammation, and increase the risk of cardiovascular disease. In fact, every 2 percent of calories of your diet from trans fats increases the risk of heart disease by a staggering 23 percent.
Sources of fat from conventionally produced meat, poultry, eggs, and dairy
Basically, you’re eating whatever the animal you consume is eating. Think about it. If you’re eating beef from feedlot cows and chicken from overcrowded hen houses, you’re getting poor-quality fats from them, due to the junk they’re fed – not to mention all the hormones and antibiotics. The same rule applies to the eggs and dairy you ingest. The quality of life and diet of the animals and animal products you consume drastically alters their health benefit to you.
Fish that are high in mercury and other toxins
Larger fish are higher on the food chain in the ocean — think swordfish, Chilean sea bass, halibut, and tuna. So, they accumulate more mercury and toxins, like PCBs, from all the smaller fish they eat.
You will want to choose oils with “high smoke points” for cooking. Having a high smoke point means the oil maintains a stable composition when heated. The smoke point of oil varies with its quality. For example, high-quality extra virgin olive oil (with low free fatty acids) has a high smoke point and is an excellent choice. However, mass-produced, inexpensive, low-quality olive oils have a much lower smoke point.
Olive oil is best used for cooking at very low heats. When cooking with less stable oils with lower smoke points, the heat quickly changes the structure of the oil which results in oxidation and toxins. This cancels out the naturally occurring beneficial compounds of the oil.
Coconut oil is a good choice for cooking and is rich in medium chain triglycerides (MCTs). MCTs go straight to your liver where they can be used as an instant energy source or turned into ketones. Ketones are energy boosting chemicals produced in your liver from fats instead of glucose. Unlike regular fatty acids, ketones can cross the blood-brain barrier to provide an alternative energy source. Your brain usually relies on glucose for fuel. Because the calories contained in MCTs are more efficiently turned into energy and used by your body, they are less likely to be stored as fat and can aid weight loss.
Avocado oil is a great choice for cooking. It is a rich source of antioxidants like lutein, which supports eye function, along with types of fat that benefit the heart.
For drizzling on foods, salads dressings, and other cold uses:
- Olive oil
- Flaxseed oil
- Walnut oil
- Hempseed oil
- Other nut and seed oils
Cold-pressed oils, as listed above, offer plenty of health benefits and add delicious flavor. Because they’re high in unsaturated fats, they’re a poor choice for cooking though. Olive oil is particularly good for your heart due to its monounsaturated fats. Flax, walnut, and hemp oils provide anti-inflammatory omega-3 fatty acids.
To scoop, slather, and eat:
Nut butter from almonds, cashews, walnuts, and pecans or seed butter, like tahini and sunflower, are tasty sources of good fats that you can eat with a spoon or use in sandwich or recipe. Coconut butter and avocados are also healthy sources. Ideally, you will want to ingest organic products without added oils or sweeteners. You can also opt for whole raw nuts and seeds — but again watch out for added ingredients.
Grass-fed, pasture-raised animals, and wild-caught low-mercury seafood:
When animals are given room to roam, forage, and eat a naturally diverse diet they produce meat with high-quality fats which are good for your brain. You’ve probably heard that saturated fats are bad for you. Well, it’s not quite that simple.
Saturated fats have been assumed to cause heart disease by raising LDL cholesterol in the blood. However, evidence directly linking saturated fats to heart disease is minimal. The relationship gets really complicated because science has determined there are different types of LDL cholesterols with different “chain lengths.” Whether an LDL cholesterol raises heart attack risk depends on the length of the chain. Some even improve the quality of LDL cholesterol.
According to the Healthline article, Saturated Fat: Good or Bad:
Saturated fats raise HDL (the “good”) cholesterol and change LDL from small, dense (bad) to Large LDL, which is mostly benign. Overall, saturated fats do not harm the blood lipid profile like previously believed.”
Sardines, salmon, mackerel, herring, and black cod are also sources of good, anti-inflammatory fats, too, without the toxicity other seafood options can carry.
How Much Fat Should You Be Eating?
The general guideline is five to seven servings per day. Your individual need is going to vary depending on your level of activity, calorie requirements for weight loss or maintenance, and individual circumstance. For instance, I recommend that a brain recovering from an injury eat more healthy fats.
The information below is from the Healthline article, Fat Grams – How Much Should You Eat Per Day?:
You can use this calculator to determine your calorie needs to lose weight or maintain your weight. This is your daily calorie goal.
A standard low-fat diet contains about 30% of calories from fats or less.
Here are a few examples of suggested daily ranges for a low-fat diet, based on different calorie goals:
- 1,500 calories: About 50 grams of fat per day.
- 2,000 calories: About 67 grams of fat per day.
- 2,500 calories: About 83 grams of fat per day.
It’s important to note that studies show higher-fat diets, such as low-carb and Mediterranean diets, are actually much healthier than the standard low-fat diet.
High-Fat Low-Carb or Ketogenic Diet
A ketogenic diet minimizes carbs, provides a moderate amount of protein and is high in fat.
The percentage of calories from fats will depend on how low your carb intake is, but it will generally be between 50–75% of calories.
Here are a few examples of suggested daily ranges for a low-carb or ketogenic diet, based on different calorie goals:
- 1,500 calories: About 83–125 grams of fat per day.
- 2,000 calories: About 111–167 grams of fat per day.
- 2,500 calories: About 139–208 grams of fat per day.
Moderate-Fat Mediterranean Diet
The Mediterranean diet includes a wide variety of plant and animal foods such as fish, meat, eggs, dairy, extra virgin olive oil, fruits, vegetables, legumes and whole grains.
It typically provides 35–40% of calories from fats, including plenty of monounsaturated fat from olive oil.
Here are a few examples of suggested daily ranges for a Mediterranean diet, based on different calorie goals:
- 1,500 calories: About 58–67 grams of fat per day.
- 2,000 calories: About 78–89 grams of fat per day.
- 2,500 calories: About 97–111 grams of fat per day.
BOTTOM LINE: How much fat you eat per day should be based on the type of diet you follow and your calorie needs for weight loss or maintenance.
*I acknowledge that there are differing philosophies and advice about fat consumption. The above information is based on my research and largely follows the recommendations of Dr. Mark Hyman MD.