Did you know that fat is good for your brain. And that you need fat in your diet. We are also told that what’s good for your heart is good for your brain.
But everyone knows that fat is bad for your heart … so are these statements contradictory?
On the surface maybe – but dig deeper and it becomes clearer.
Did you know that the brain holds about 25% of the body’s cholesterol and that the brain requires that cholesterol to help neurons form connections with other neurons?
These neuron connections are the vital links that underlie memory and learning. Therefore, the more neurons you have connecting with other neurons, the healthier your brain will be.
Muscles are stronger with a well-developed network of blood vessels. A well-developed set of neurons makes the brain stronger. A stronger brain is better able to buffer against disease or recover from trauma.
Cholesterol and Brain Health
Cholesterol is also important for brain health. It is an important raw material from which your body makes Vitamin D. Vitamin D is a fundamental nutrient for brain function. Vitamin D facilitates neuron growth and recent studies have linked a deficiency in Vitamin D to an increased risk for dementia. (read more about Vitamin D and brain health)
So while you may have thought that lowering cholesterol was good for your heart, it’s not always great for your brain.
As research develops, we have seen a more nuanced approach to cholesterol. It is recognized that some types of cholesterol are important for both brain and heart health. Good cholesterol (high density lipoprotein – HDL) has a positive impact on the circulatory system. The cholesterol that is bad for the circulatory system is oxidized low density lipoprotein – LDL The key here is the oxidization of the cholesterol that gives it its inflamatory impact on your system.
Including more fat in your diet, however may feel like a bit of a dilemma. How do you choose what is best?
Choosing the right fats
The PURE study is changing the answer to this question. The PURE study found that a high rate of fat intake, including saturated fat, was linked to a reduced rate of mortality.
The study concluded that low rates of saturated fat may even be detrimental to your health. Because our brains are very fatty and need fat in order to function well, it is important to understand what type of fats are conducive to brain health and which fats are bad for our brains.
The healthy fats help the brain function more efficiently. They are characterized as omega-3 fatty acids. Healthy fats are typically found in fatty fish, such as salmon, herring, mackerel, and sardines. So including fish at least twice a week in your diet is a good step forward for brain health.
Avocados, nuts and seeds contain good unsaturated fats.
Some unsalted nuts, such as peanuts, cashews, pecans, and almonds, also contain good or healthy fats.
Vegetable oils like canola, olive, sesame and sunflower oil also have ‘good fats’ in them.
When it comes to saturated fats, one of the clear winners is coconut oil. Coconut oil is one of the best oils for high-heat cooking and research suggests it may help increase HDL cholesterol.
Saturated fats found in meat and dairy products were once considered bad fats. But a 2013 study from the Mayo Clinic suggests that individuals consuming a diet high in saturated fats reduced their risk of dementia by 36%. Layer this with the PURE study and consuming meat should become a part of eating healthy for you.
But choose your saturated fats wisely and with moderation you can, put grass fed beef, free range chicken eggs and coconut oil back into your diet.
Bad or unhealthy fats are found in foods high in trans-fatty acids or saturated fats. These unhealthy fats can do damage to the brain over time and are commonly found in fast foods and fried foods. Today a typical person will consume nearly fifteen times more bad fat then good fat. This is a significantly unhealthy balance that increases the risk of brain dysfunction from a variety of disorders, such as cerebrovascular disease, cardiovascular disease, obesity, and diabetes. Intake of bad fats, including trans-fatty acids, saturated fats, and omega-6 fatty acids, can lead to a breakdown of plasticity of brain cells, creating less efficient information processing.
One type of oil that is of concern is canola oil. Canola oil is a seed oil that is widely used in both cooking and food processing. The research is conflicting and inconsistent. One of the reasons for this is that the studies with unprocessed or cold-pressed canola oil are the ones that show benefit, while the studies with heat-processed canola oil are the studies that show harm.
What is clear is that overly processed foods are a major contributor to the risk of obesity, diabetes, and a myriad of disorders that can result in degeneration and dysfunction of the human brain. Obesity and diabetes alone are major threats to the function of the brain, correlate with stroke and dementia, and now occur in childhood at unprecedented rates relative to any other time in our history.
Additionally, artificial trans fats are harmful even in small amounts and the World Health Organization has called for their removal from food by 2023.
Heart health and cholesterol
There is lots of research about heart health and cholesterol. it sounds like a movie – the good, the bad and the ugly. I wrote previously about the raging debate between the American Heart Association and other medical professionals about what the right approach to cholesterol is. I predicted that one of the takeaways from all of this is going to be balance. Balance in your diet – with plenty of variety and moderation in everything.
The PURE Study backs up the call for balance. I almost laughed out loud when the lead researcher described showing the results to his mother. She asked him why he bothered doing the study, since this was common knowledge that she had received from her grandmother.
Glucose and Insulin
Interestingly, elevated levels of insulin is showing up as a real culprit in heart disease. Therefore, managing your glucose levels is becoming increasingly important for heart health.
So while eating good fat is important for brain health, the brain-heart connection is apparent again in being aware of your levels of glucose or sugar intake. Higher levels of glucose in the blood, even when an individual does not have diabetes, can have a negative impact on the brain. Research has shown that individuals with high levels of glucose increase their risk of dementia. This occurs whether or not they actually had diabetes.
A possible reason is that individuals suffering from long-term insulin depletion, caused by uncontrolled (or undiagnosed) diabetes, may also cause permanent damage to the myelin sheaths that cover the neurons.
Damage to the myelin sheath affects the brain’s ability to move information quickly and effectively throughout the brain. It become more difficult for your brain, for example, to process information and tell you to move your foot.
The conclusion is that a good diet can make a tremendous difference in brain health. Our diet is an important factor in staying both brain and heart healthy as we age.
So the take away on fat?
Put good fats into your diet in order to embrace a brain health lifestyle and reduce your dementia risk.