Fats are an important part of any balanced diet, but they’re all far from created equal. Different types of fats can have vastly different effects on physical and mental health, and the wrong ones may even disrupt normal brain function. Just one meal high in saturated fats can impair a person’s ability to think, and trans fats could be even more neurotoxic, increasing risks for behavior disorders and neurological diseases. Let's look at the ways that fat can affect our brains.
Our brains use fats to function, most of us know that by now but you may not know that mental performance can vary depending on the types of fats we consume. A recent study examined the changes that can occur in the brain after even one meal high in saturated fats. (Saturated fats, or sat fats, as they are sometimes called, are fats that are solid at room temperature.) The results were telling: Saturated fats reduce concentration levels and significantly impair performance.
Over time, the impairment caused by saturated fats may cause metabolic endotoxemia, or an imbalance in the gut that can lead to inflammation throughout the body. This can affect the brain as well, potentially causing cognitive impairment in both the short and long term.
Medline recommends that fewer than 10% of daily calories come from saturated fats. For the average person, that’s 16 to 22 grams of saturated fat each day. To maintain this level, it may be best to avoid fried and processed foods, as well as foods high in animal fats and dairy because saturated fats rise sharply in these foods making it almost impossible to stay under the limits with even small quantities being consumed.
Just when you thought that was the worst of it, well, it turns out that even more toxic on the brain than saturated fats, are something called trans fats. We've covered this elsewhere on Wellness, but here's a brief reminder: Trans fats also increase inflammation and may contribute to neurodegenerative diseases (such as dementia). Some research suggests trans fats contribute specifically to the development of Alzheimer’s disease. These fats may also interfere with the brain in ways that can affect signaling pathways, potentially causing certain behavioral disorders.
Like avoiding saturated fats, you'll find that most trans fats are in processed and fried foods. These fats are so unhealthy, they should make up no more than 1% of a person’s daily fat intake and are generally best avoided altogether.
About 50% of the fats in the human brain are composed of DHA, an omega-3 fatty acid. The brain uses DHA and other fats to form new neurons, protect cells against disease and enable communication between nerves. These are the right fats, the good fats, that help our brains to function at their peak levels. Deficiencies in these fatty acids may increase the risks of mental health issues or accelerate aging and neurological disease.
Omega-3 fatty acids are most abundant in nuts and plant oils and some fatty fish. Some fortified foods may also contain these beneficial fats as additions, but supplements may not be all that they're cracked up to be.
Fats are every bit as essential to the body as proteins, vitamins and minerals and we tend to give them less attention than they deserve as we are a protein-focused culture. But paying attention to our fats can be enlightening and even life-changing—if we can get the balance right. The wrong choices may lead to inflammatory conditions that can affect brain function, or even long-term physical and emotional health. Keep saturated fats to a minimum, cut out trans fats wherever possible and eat as many foods as possible that contain omega-3 fatty acids to keep your brain in its best possible shape.
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