Ever wonder what constitutes “brain food?” Turns out, fat is pretty important to brain function—as long as you pick the right kind. Healthy, natural forms of fat support brain development and function throughout our lives.
Getting the right kind of nutrition doesn’t mean cutting out fats entirely. In fact, your brain relies on fat for normal function. Here’s your guide to consuming healthy fats that will boost your brain power.
Your brain and healthy fats: friends forever
Did you know that your brain is about 60 to 70 percent fat? Your brain needs fat to function, but only certain types. (Sorry, deep-fried Twinkies just won’t cut it.) Brains require omega-3 fatty acids. Not only are they the “building blocks” of the brain, but they’re crucial to learning and memory. That’s why diets rich in healthy fat, like the Mediterranean diet, have been linked to lower occurrences of neurodegenerative disorders.
This study found that specific nutrients can impact our cognitive processes, emotions, behavior, neuroendocrine function and synaptic plasticity—and lipids (fats) “play structural and functional roles in neurons.” They concluded that “the manipulation of lifestyle factors such as dietary interventions may represent a successful therapeutic approach to maintain and preserve brain health along lifespan.” In other words, the right nutrition, including healthy fats, can be used to keep your brain in top shape. Some are even used to treat brain diseases.
Another study found that “increasing olive oil and nut consumption along with a plant-based Mediterranean diet may help preserve cognitive function in older adults, a finding which builds on past research into the benefits of healthy fat intake and brain health. …it offers a promising finding given the lack of treatment—or a cure—for dementia and Alzheimer's disease.” The study’s authors found that healthy fats can play a big role in preserving memory.
Our need for healthy fats starts in utero. Prenatal vitamins are full of DHA (docosahexaenoic acid), an omega-3 fatty acid crucial to fetal brain development. DHA is also found in fatty fish, like salmon, sardines and mackerel. Omega-3s can also be found in plant sources, including seeds and nuts.
Getting enough omega-3s will help improve your brain function, whether you get them from food, supplements or a combination of both.
Fats to skip
Although it’s hard to completely avoid many unhealthy fats, it’s important to know what to avoid. Saturated fats don’t have the same health benefits as omega-3s. Saturated fats are commonly found in “animal-based foods like beef, pork, poultry, full-fat dairy products and eggs and tropical oils like coconut, and palm.” They solidify at room temperature—hence the name “solid fats.” When you’re meal planning, keep these fat sources at a minimum. You should consume no more than 13 grams of saturated fat per day.
Partially hydrogenated fats, which include trans fats, are the worst for your body and brain function. Most of these fats have been phased out of modern American food since 2015, but they occur naturally in some animals, including cows. Prior to 2015, partially hydrogenated fats were often found in margarine, baked goods, coffee creamer, frostings and junk food. They’ve been replaced with mono- and diglycerides—try to skip those, too, whenever possible.
Finally, keep your deep fried food to a minimum. The fats in deep fried food can oxidize over time, which causes cell damage.
Finding sources of healthy fats
There are several different ways you can get a healthy fat fix. Fatty fish is loaded with omega-3 fatty acids. Salmon, sardines, mackerel, trout, albacore and herring are relatively lean sources of protein, which also benefit your brain.
If you don’t eat fish, try nuts and seeds. Walnuts are the best choice, since they’re full of omega-3s. Many nuts and seeds contain vitamin E, too, which fights the free radical damage that causes cognitive decline.
Olive oil also contains omega-3s. Although olive oil isn’t suitable for cooking at extremely high temperatures (this destroys its nutritional content and can cause the oil to smoke), it’s a good choice for drizzling over salads, vegetables, pasta and more.
Finally, you can always turn to supplements. If you’re unable to eat natural sources of healthy fats, you can get similar brain-boosting benefits in pill form. Talk to your doctor about the right dosage to best support your brain.
Your brain needs fat—so go ahead and give it the right kind.