Eat Fat to Protect Your Brain and Boost Its Function

The brain is the fattiest organ in the human body, consisting of 60 percent fat. Fat is an essential part of our diet, as it supports cell function, insulates organs, and is used for hormone production. 

There are three kinds of fats that we consume through our diet—some are good, and some are bad. Consuming healthy fats may protect and preserve brain structure and function. 

Why Is Fat Needed for Brain Health?

Brain cells, known as neurons, are the main cells found in the brain. Neurons use electrical and chemical signals to process and respond to information from the environment. 

For example, when you are eating, the taste receptors in your tongue send signals to your brain that process the texture and taste of the food you are eating. The neurons in your brain then communicate with one another, causing you to respond positively (“yum!”) or negatively (“yuck!”)  to the food you have just eaten. 

Neurons, like all cells in the body, have a membrane that coats the cell and protects it from the external environment. The membrane contains proteins, carbohydrates—and most importantly—fats. Without fats, there would be no structure in the cells in your body. 

Another role of fat within the brain is signal transduction. One example of this is myelin, a fat and protein-rich sheath that coats the long trunks of neurons known as axons. Myelin helps with cellular communication by allowing electrical signals to pass efficiently from one neuron to another. 

Without fat to support cell membranes and myelin, brain cells would not be able to function.  

Some fats are neuroprotective. They can protect the brain by reducing brain inflammation, regulating cell survival and death, and helping with the generation of new brain cells. While the specific mechanisms of how fat acts as a neuroprotective agent are not clearly understood, many studies have demonstrated the benefits of and necessity of consuming healthy fats for brain health

Fats That May Be Protective for Your Brain

In particular, unsaturated fats have been found to have neuroprotective properties. 

There are three kinds of fats that we consume through our diet: saturated fats, trans fats, and unsaturated fats. Each type of fat has a different chemical composition, which causes a different response within our body once it is consumed. 

One review of the effects of consuming different unsaturated fats found that unsaturated fats play a critical role in the membrane of brain cells, may have anti-inflammatory properties, and may help ward off neurodegenerative diseases. Other studies have found that consuming unsaturated fats may increase total brain volume and support complex cognitive functioning. This includes long-chain omega-3 fatty acids.

Consumption of a diet high in saturated fats has been long studied to be detrimental to brain health. However, new research suggests that long-chain saturated fats may have a positive impact on cognitive function. This kind of saturated fat is found in dairy products and nuts, which offer many health benefits.

Medium-chain fatty acids are either saturated or unsaturated fats. They also benefit the brain and can improve cognitive functioning. These fatty acids differ from long-chain fatty acids in their chemical composition: medium-chain fatty acids have 6 to 12 carbons, while long-chain fatty acids have 13 plus carbons in their chain. 

Not all fats are equal. Trans fats, regular-chain saturated fats, and large amounts of omega-6 fatty acids may negatively impact the brain. For example, research has shown that trans fatty acids cause an increase in body weight and predisposes individuals to heart disease. In turn, increased body weight and heart disease are leading contributors to stroke, Alzheimer’s disease, and mild cognitive impairment

How To Nurture Your Brain With Fats

A well-studied approach to eating well and supporting brain health is the Mediterranean diet

The shining stars of the Mediterranean diet are omega-3 fatty acids. These fatty acids make up 10 to 20 percent of the fatty acids in the brain and are important for brain cell development, connectivity, and for cellular communication. These fatty acids are found in foods such as mackerel, salmon, oysters, sardines, and walnuts, to name a few. 

Medium-chain fatty acids can be found in coconut oil, MCT oil, and butter

The amount of fat you should consume varies based on your age, sex, weight, fitness, activity level, nutrition needs, and other health factors. For example, one following a Mediterranean diet may consume 83 to 125 grams of fat per day for a 1,500-calorie diet, 111 to 167 grams for a 2,000-calorie diet, or 139 to 208 grams for a 2,500-calorie diet. 

Regardless of one’s caloric intake levels, one should aim to avoid foods high in trans fats and moderate their consumption of regular-chain saturated and omega-6 fatty acids. These fats are found in products such as fried foods, commercial baked goods, and margarine. Essentially, highly processed foods contain high levels of these types of fats. 

On the other hand, natural foods like salmon, oysters, coconuts, and olives contain beneficial fats. By eliminating and reducing one’s intake of processed foods and opting for more nutrient-dense natural options, one can support their brain health by eating well. 

Dustin Luchmee

Dustin Luchmee is a Philadelphia-based freelance journalist.

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