Many people are confused about fat in their diet. For so long, dietary fat was demonized. Now all of a sudden it seems to be celebrated. What’s the healthy choice here? Some truth lies in understanding the main function of fats in the brain and the body. Different types of fat play a wide variety of roles. Scientists are still uncovering the full picture.
When you think of “brain food,” you may picture something like amino acids – not fats and oils. But understanding what role fats and cholesterol play might just make you rethink your assumptions.
What Role Do Fats Play In The Brain?
The human brain is made up of nearly 60% fat, so it’s no surprise that fats are linked to brain health.1 Here are the different types of good fats that are essential to brain health:
Essential Fatty Acids
Omega-3 fatty acids are essential to your brain’s integrity and performance. The forms of fatty acids that are particularly important are:
- Eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA)
- Docosahexaenoic acid (DHA)2
These are some of the functions that fatty acids play:
- They bind to cell membranes increasing fluidity, which is important for the functioning of brain cells.3
- They support neurotransmitter receptors, which communicate information throughout the brain.4
- Studies have shown a link between a mother’s DHA levels and the problem-solving abilities of their children.5
- EPA and DHA aid serotonin, a nerve messenger that may help support your mood.6
- Studies show that EPA and DHA have beneficial effects on nerve cells.7
The Best Fats For A Healthy Brain
Good nutrition and a healthy diet are important for maintaining a healthy brain. Along with protein and carbohydrates, fat is an essential macronutrient. Humans need to get some calories from fat to survive.
The important role that fats play in our overall health is now well understood by the medical community. Fats can affect our hormones, immune system, digestive health, skin, emotional health, and brain function.8 But not all fats are created equal.
Different Types Of Fat And Your Brain: Unsaturated, Saturated, Trans Fats
Unsaturated fats contain the essential fatty acids omega-3 and omega-6. Your brain needs these fats to function properly, but your body can’t produce them on its own. You must include them in your diet.
These are all great dietary sources of polyunsaturated fats:
- Olives and olive oil
- Peanut butter
- Fatty fish, like salmon and mackerel
- Nuts and seeds9
Saturated fats get a bad rap. They’ve been linked to increased LDL cholesterol and heart conditions. But like many things having to do with nutrition and health, the full picture is complicated.10
Your brain uses saturated fat for a variety of functions. Saturated fat protects the brain from free radicals, helps information flow through the brain, and acts as a barrier in the cell membrane. Here are some dietary sources of saturated fat:
- High-fat dairy products, like butter and whole milk
- Fatty cuts of beef, pork, and lamb
- Dark poultry meat and poultry skin
- Coconut oil11
The typical American diet is too high in saturated fats. While these fats do play a role in your overall nutrition and brain function, they should be eaten in moderation. When choosing a saturated fat to include in your diet, go for quality over quantity, and look for grass fed products whenever possible.12 Your doctor can help you decide which saturated fats are right for you and how much to incorporate into your diet.
Trans fats are man-made fats that can lead to serious health complications. Trans fats can mess with cells, hormones, and inflammation in the brain. Trans fats are commonly found in processed foods like:
- Potato chips
- Fried foods
- Store-bought salad dressings
- Baked goods13
Unlike other types of fats, these foods don’t contain enough vitamins or nutrients to make them beneficial. They can only offer calories and carbohydrates (usually). Whenever possible, try to limit these in your diet.
How Much Fat Should You Get From Your Diet?
Now that you know the importance of fats for your brain, should you switch to a high-fat diet? Not so fast. Always speak with your doctor before you make any diet or lifestyle change. Your overall health has many nuances to consider, and there is no one-size-fits-all approach.
That said, here are some general dietary guidelines:
Experts say that 20-35% of your total calories should come from fat. The rest should come from protein and carbohydrates.
- Monounsaturated fat: 15% to 20%
- Polyunsaturated fat: 5% to 10%
- Saturated fat: less than 10%
- Trans fat: 0%
- Cholesterol: less than 300 mg per day14
Speak with your doctor to get specific guidelines based on your medical history and unique situation.
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