Throughout most of our lives, we have been taught that fat is bad, period. However, while this may be true for some types of fats, other healthy fats are essential for our mental function, heart health, and even in maintaining a healthy BMI.
Unfortunately, due to our perception of ALL fats causing weight gain, cardiovascular disease and other negative health repercussions, we often short ourselves on the kinds of good fats which are critical to our well-being, including brain health.
But which fats are healthy, and which ones do we need to avoid?
To help you get around the confusion, here is what you need to know about good fats, bad fats, and the effects good fats have on your brain and overall health.
What Are Good Fats?
When we think of fat, we typically envision foods which are considered “off limits” to a healthy lifestyle, such as greasy cheeseburgers, fatty lunch meats, or fried foods. And yes, it is true that these foods typically contain fats with an imbalance of omega-6’s and 9’s along with being high in trans fatty acids and hydrogenated oils. Consumption of them can lead to weight gain, increased risk of cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and other negative health factors.
On the other hand, what these foods lack is a balance of omega-3/omega-6 fatty acids, which are essential for your overall health, including brain health. Unfortunately, many modern processed foods fall short of this balance, and lack omega-3 fatty acids in particular.
However, think of fat as “brain food,” since it makes up around 60% of your brain, and can have an effect on your mental clarity, mental outlook, nerve function, and other factors associated with a healthy mind. (1)
Sources of Good Fats
As far as sources of good fats high in omega-3, these include:
- Salmon, sardines, and other wild-caught fish which are preferably low on the food chain and/or from a cold-water source.
- Nuts, such as walnuts, almonds, and especially coconuts.
- Grass-fed meats.
- Olives and olive oil.
Other sources of healthy fats include dietary supplements, such as Hotze Vitamin’s Omega Complete Fish Oil or Hotze Vitamin’s organic expeller-pressed coconut oil, both of which are a convenient—and in the case of coconut oil, tasty—addition to your healthy diet.
Why Are Good Fats Beneficial to Your Brain?
While leafy greens and multi-colored fruits and vegetables are what we usually think of as “brain foods,” fats also need to be included in the discussion, particularly omega-3-6 polyunsaturated fats. In fact, of the fats which compose most of the human brain, it is estimated that 50% are polyunsaturated, with about 33% being omega 3 fatty acids.
And, these polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFAs) are vital to the makeup of cell membranes. This is because PUFAs keep the cell walls flexible, which allows certain proteins embedded in them to more freely change shape in response to neurotransmitter signals. Since these changes in shape are what trigger nerve impulses which allow cells to communicate, we can see why adequate amounts of PUFAs are essential to a healthy brain function.
For instance, recent studies show that lowering serum lipids—omega-3-6 in particular—increases the instance of depression. This is likely due to the effect an imbalance of omega-3-6 fatty acids on the biochemical and biophysical makeup of cell membranes.
This in turn can affect such things as our body’s serotonin levels. Since serotonin is our “feel good” hormone, a lack of it due to poorly functioning serotonin receptors can leave us feeling low and out of sorts, along with the danger of this manifesting into worsening depression.
And, since important cellular components such as long chain PUFAs including DHA require omega-3 PUFAs to convert from, you need to get adequate amounts of omega-3 PUFAs in your diet to ensure a healthy brain function.(2, 3, 4)
What Are the Symptoms of Not Enough Healthy Fats?
Not only can inadequate PUFA intake lead to symptoms of depression, there are also other consequences to be aware of.
These can include:
- Inability to concentrate
- Mental fatigue
- Constant feelings of hunger
Other physical symptoms can include:
- Dry flaky skin and scalp
- Brittle hair
- Aching joints
- Dry eyes
- Insulin resistance
And, in addition to its role as a key component of brain cells, polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fats are necessary in the formation of bile detergents which are critical in the digestion of fats, as well as the absorption of fat-soluble vitamins such as vitamins A, D, E & K. (5)
Bad Fats to Avoid
Of course, not all fats are good fats, and there are some types to avoid. These are the types of fats which do cause weight gain, increased risk of cardiovascular disease, and plaque buildup in arteries.
At the same time, it should also be noted that PUFAs are responsible for the transport and oxidation of high-density lipoproteins (HDL, AKA “bad” cholesterol), which is why PUFAs are not only essential for brain health, but for cardiovascular health as well. (6)
However, it is best to avoid the kinds of fats which cause arterial HDL buildup, which include:
- Trans fats—Artificially produced using an industrial process which involves adding hydrogen to liquid vegetable oils to make them more solid, trans fats are commonly found as “partially hydrogenated oils” in highly processed foods.
- Saturated fats—While you do need some saturated fats in your diet, a diet too heavy in them can lead to health problems, including excessive serum levels of HDL and the risk of cardiovascular disease. According to the American Heart Association, these types of fats should make up no more than 5-6% of your daily calories. (7)
It should also be noted that an imbalance of fatty acids, namely the overabundance of omega-6 and too little omega-3 which is often found in our modern diet can cause:
- Increased risk of cardiovascular disease, such as heart attack and stroke
- Increased risk of arthritis
- Increased risk of diabetes
- Weight gain
This isn’t to say that you need to avoid omega-6 fatty acids altogether, since they are considered an essential fatty acid; just that you need to avoid excessive amounts of them along with not enough omega-3’s. The ratio should be between 2:1 – 4:1 omega-6 to omega-3 per most health recommendations, although the closer you get to 1:1 the better. (8, 9)
Sources of Unhealthy Fats
So far as foods you need to avoid due to their unhealthy fat content, here are some of the fat sources you should limit or avoid:
- Many vegetable oils—While oils such as coconut, avocado or olive oil are highly beneficial to brain function and overall health, it is not so for many cooking oils. Avoid using oils such as safflower, soybean, corn oil or most other “conventional” cooking oils, since most have an imbalance of omega-6 fatty acids, are processed to contain trans fats, and have high occurrences of GMOs. For cooking, stick with coconut oil for higher heat and olive oil for lower heat, and use extra virgin olive oil or avocado oil for salads or other cold purposes.
- Fried foods—While not all fried foods are necessarily bad for you, those fried in high heat using oil such as corn oil increases the oxidation process, which creates trans fats. If you do fry, use lower heat, and stick with healthy fats such as coconut oil or animal fat, including grass-fed lard or duck fat. (10)
- Conventionally raised beef—Most conventionally raised cattle are fed a diet of corn or other grains, which produces a substantial imbalance of omega-6 to omega-3 fatty acids. For example, while grass finished beef averages a ratio of 1.53 omega-6-3, grain finished beef is around 7.65 respectively (based on grams per 100g of lipids), which leaves conventional grain-finished beef an unhealthy choice in fat sources. Try sticking with grass-finished beef, duck, wild-caught fish such as salmon, or game meat for best animal sources of brain-healthy fats. (11)
Your brain is mostly fat, which means you need to consume enough of it for a healthy mental function. However, hydrogenated and partially hydrogenated oils, trans fats, and fats high in omega-6 while being low in omega-3 fatty acids are NOT the answer, since over-consumption of them can lead to serious health problems, both mental and physical.
It is for this reason that consuming foods balanced in omega-3-6 fatty acids are critical to your brain’s health. You can also add quality supplements to your diet, such as Dr. Hotze’s Omega Complete fish oil or organic expeller pressed coconut oil for a convenient–and in the case of coconut oil–versatile way to add brain-healthy fats to your diet.
However, no matter the source, getting enough healthy fats in your diet is essential to brain health, so don’t overlook this important dietary aspect!
Hormone Decline and Imbalance can Negatively Affect Brain Health
Do you have symptoms such as brain fog and short term memory loss? Do you have difficulty concentrating? A decline and imbalance in your thyroid and sex hormones can cause these symptoms. Take our symptom checker to find out if you have other symptoms of hormone imbalance.