It is not widely known that our brain needs fat. This is part of our confusing history with fat. We’ve heard for far too many years that fat is bad. This morphed into the maturing realization that certain fats are good, especially specific unsaturated fatty acids. The truth is, we cannot survive without the proper type and the proper amount of fat. In fact, our brains are nearly 60 percent fat, with a great need for saturated fat, polyunsaturated fat, cholesterol, and other fats.
Certain polyunsaturated fats are called essential fats, because our bodies cannot manufacture them. Fatty acids like EPA and DHA can be made, but the process is convoluted and inefficient. These two fatty acids could rightly be called conditionally essential, because under certain conditions, we cannot make enough for our needs. For purposes of emphasis, I call these brain fats, and they include fats that you’ve surely heard of, including EPA (Eicosapentaenoic acid), DHA (Docosahexaenoic acid), GLA (Gamma-linolenic acid), PC (Phosphatidylcholine), and PS (Phosphatidylserine).
In the United States, it is common for individuals to get nearly 40 percent of the daily calories from fat in processed foods and animal fats. A typical American diet is overloaded with omega-6 fats derived from oils, such as sunflower, safflower, sesame, cottonseed, and corn. Foods like margarine, baked goods, cereals, and others frequently contain too many omega-6 fatty acids and not nearly enough omega-3s. By some estimates, the amount of brain-fats we consume, those essential for optimal function of the brain, has declined by more than 80 percent.
The number of maladies that have been associated with either the lack of specific fatty acids or with imbalances of essential fatty acids in our brains continues to grow, as we understand more about this remarkable relationship between fat and the brain. These include aggression, Alzheimer’s disease, all-cause dementia, attention deficit disorder , brain tumors, memory problems, multiple sclerosis, Parkinson’s disease, postpartum depression, depression, anxiety, and even things like self-mutilation and stroke.
Where to find omega-3 fatty acids
Eat well – less meat and more vegetables.
Food sources: cold-water fish (salmon, mackerel, halibut, sardines, tuna, herring), flax seeds, walnuts, navy beans, kidney beans, soy beans and tofu, winter squash, olive oil.
Supplements: krill oil, fish oil, flaxseed oil, hemp oil.
Michael A. Schmidt, is a NASA consultant in the areas of space biomedicine and space biotechnology and author of numerous books, including Brain-Building Nutrition: How Dietary Fats and Oils Affect Mental, Physical, and Emotional Intelligence.Complete bio.