How Fat Fuels Our Brain and Increases Cognition

Fat and the brain

We’ve long been taught that fat is the enemy. Traditional diet advice suggests that decreasing fat is the first thing to do if you want to lose weight. Likewise, we’re told that ‘fat makes us fat’, while also playing a major role in heart disease risk.

Yet, as you may have heard, the science against fat isn’t as strong as we assume. Instead, healthy fats may be critical to our overall wellbeing, helping people to lose weight and decrease disease risk overall.

Likewise, there is a strong connection between fat and the brain. So, getting more healthy fats can help increase your mental potential – making you more alert and improving cognition.

At least, that’s the theory.

So, in this post, we’re taking a look at the science behind the concept, along with how you can take advantage of fat to get the most out of your brain.

The Fat in our Brains

Estimates suggest that almost 60% of the brain is fat – a higher proportion than in other parts of the body (1).These fats are structural molecules (in the form of lipids) and are critical to effective functioning of the body and the mind (2).

Based on this, including high-quality fats in the diet simply makes sense.

Some theories suggest that the quality of fat we consume directly impacts the lipids in the brain. In turn, this could affect the structures that are formed throughout the body and health overall (3).

At the same time, fat may directly impact the function of the brain.

neurons in the brain

So, if you consume too little fat or the wrong types of fat, you could end up making your brain less effective overall.

Indeed, this pattern is one reason why omega-3 fatty acids are so important for the body and for brain health. In a similar way, there are other essential fatty acids that people have to get from the diet, as our bodies cannot produce them (4).

Because of this, not getting enough good fat in your diet can impair brain function.

The reverse is also true.

Getting enough healthy fats can help improve areas like focus, mental clarity and concentration. For example, one study found that omega-3 supplementation improved cognition in young adults (5). Likewise, omega-3 is commonly promoted as a way to decrease cognitive decline in older adults (6,7,8), although not all research agrees (9,10,11).

Research also shows that diets high in fats can help to promote improved cognition and a decreased risk of Alzheimer’s disease (12).

That research also indicates that the fats in your diet may even be able to change the fat profile in your brain (13). This pattern alone highlights just how critical consuming healthy fats is.

Mediterranean diet concept

For that matter, some of the advantages of fat for the brain can be seen with the Mediterranean diet. This diet approach has long been touted as healthy, with research consistently showing that it promotes longevity, along with improved memory and attention.

Likewise, the diet has been associated with decreased cognitive decline (14,15).

While there are many different variations, the Mediterranean diet does rely heavily on healthy fats, much more so than conventional Western diets.

Fat in the Diet

All of these areas show that fat isn’t a bad thing. In fact, having good fats in your diet is critical for maintaining brain function.

At the same time, many of the other issues with fat are also overblown and unrealistic.

Cholesterol in the bloodstream, concept

In particular, one common reason for avoiding fat is cholesterol. We’ve long been told that most fats will raise bad cholesterol (LDL cholesterol), especially saturated fats. Researchers claim that the increased cholesterol can then raise heart disease risk. This view is also why so many people rely on the risk-laden statins to lower cholesterol.

But, there is actually considerable debate and controversy surrounding cholesterol.

More and more experts are beginning to question current guidelines, arguing that there is no significant evidence that saturated fat increases heart disease risk (16). For that matter, many studies that have managed to lower cholesterol in patients have failed to see any impacts on heart disease (17,18).

The truth is that fat is a powerful tool, especially when you rely on healthy fats.

This means that you can safely use fat as a fuel and promote improved brain function. At the same time, fat can even contribute to weight loss, even though that sounds counterintuitive.

So then, how do you get the most benefits and minimize risk?

Well, there are two factors.

The first is choosing healthy fats, the second is determining a diet/lifestyle approach.

Diet and Lifestyle

Healthy fats offer considerable benefits for the brain and health overall. But, you do still have to be wary. After all, fat tends to be fairly high in calories.

Cooked steak

So, if you just add it to your regular diet, you may end up gaining weight and causing health problems. Instead, the solution is to find a healthy lifestyle approach that works for you.

Doing so involves shifting your focus away from carbs and toward fat. As such, you would typically increase your fat consumption while decreasing the number of carbs you eat.

There are many health benefits connected with doing so, as carbs are commonly associated with processed food, sugar and inflammation.

Many popular diets take this approach to varying degrees. For example, low carb diets work like the name suggests, where you are intentionally lowering your carb intake. By doing so, you rely on fat as an energy source instead.

Low carb diets can seem difficult at first but you have considerable options when it comes to food and there are also some amazing recipes and products out there that help to support the diet.

We’ve covered some of these areas in the past with related articles:

Another option is a paleo diet. Paleo is somewhat different, as the emphasis is on eating the food that our ancestors used to consume and avoiding the options that they didn’t.

A paleo diet doesn’t really have a focus on carbs and most people don’t actively count them when doing this approach. However, the foods included on paleo means that it typically ends up being a relatively low carb approach anyway.

A more extreme approach is the idea of ketosis. Ketosis diets (also called keto or ketogenic diets) focus on a specific state in the body known as ketosis. When your body is in ketosis, it burns fat as fuel, rather than carbs.

To do this, you need to keep your carb intake very low, often below 50 grams of carbs per day. The specific amount varies from one person to the next but some may need to go down to around 20 grams per day.

A good introduction to the concept can be found at KetoDiet Blog, where Martina talks about carb intake and the keto diet. Scientific American also has a great summary of some of the biochemical concepts involved and their implications.

Basically, keto means that you end up switching to an entirely different fuel source, relying on fat instead of carbs. This is the most powerful way to get the benefits of fat for your brain and keto diets are often linked to improved cognition and neuroprotective effects (19,20,21,22,23).

However, debates also rage about ketosis.

For one thing, the diet works well for some people, while others struggle to maintain it. Certainly, the process does come with a range of side effects and the initial period of adjustment is challenging.

There also remains relatively little long-term research into the diet (24). To make matters worse, ketosis is dramatically different than conventional nutrition perspectives.

Young woman with fried eggs and bacon

As a result, many people are resistant to the idea, including many doctors and nutritionists.

But, while ketosis may not work for everyone, for many it is a good way to lose weight and become healthier. The diet also heavily relies on healthy fats, so it’s easy to see how it could help to boost brain health as well.

In fact, it is a diet that many people swear by and supporters say that it truly promotes good health overall.

One final example is the Mediterranean diet. This term is a general one and there are many variations on the diet. But, the overall idea is a strong focus on plant-based foods, including whole grains and nuts. Under this diet, protein typically comes from lean sources, like fish and poultry. Healthy fats are also included, particularly oils like olive oil. 

As such, the diet is relatively high in monounsaturated fat and low in saturated fat.

Whether this is better or worse for brain health is debatable. But, the diet type is another option and can be attractive for some people. If you’re interested in learning more, Authority Nutrition offers a great meal plan and overall guide for the Mediterranean diet.

Choosing Healthy Fats

The other question to consider is, which fats should you be eating? After all, some types of fat are going to be better than others. There is a good list of these on Tasteaholics that can help give you some insight.

But, the key types of fat to avoid are processed trans fats (like in margarine) and processed polyunsaturated fats (like in canola oil). By extension, you want to be avoiding processed foods in general, as that type of food is never going to be good for health.

Instead, you’re focusing on natural sources of fat.

Now, this does include saturated fats. So, red meat, butter, eggs and cream are all in the list as sources of healthy fats. Other powerful choices include olive oil (particularly extra virgin olive oil), coconut oil and avocado oil.

When it comes to olive oil, there are 5 key brands that we recommend. The reason for this is that many olive oil companies mislead and manipulate consumers. As a result, you often don’t get what you pay for. These brands are all legitimate and offer high-quality products that are worth relying on.

Likewise, some good options for coconut and avocado oil can be seen in the box below.

At the end of the day, taking advantage of fats in your diet doesn’t have to be confusing. But, you do need the right information to start off with.

Because of this, it’s often worth investing in one or two books on the topic. Even if you don’t plan to follow every piece of advice offered, this type of book can provide you with insight into the best fats for your brain health and also your physical health.

One such option is Head Strong. This book comes from the creator of The Bulletproof Diet. Now, I don’t personally agree with everything in the book. But, there is useful information about getting the most out of your brain and fat is a key component of this discussion.

One other book worth considering is Fat for Fuel from Dr. Joseph Mercola. 

The reason for recommending this book is that Mercola is an expert when it comes to relying on fat in your diet. As a result, his information is extremely useful for helping you to develop your own diet approach that relies on fat.

Again, you may not use everything in the book and you might disagree with him in some areas. Still, the book may offer considerable guidance and insight, and it can be worth it for that reason alone.

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