Why Healthy Fat is Your Friend
Apr 02, 2021
"No diet will remove all the fat from your body because the brain is entirely fat. Without a brain, you might look good, but all you could do is run for public office." – George Bernard Shaw
Every few years or so, the health and wellness industry seems to pick a new food, nutrient, vitamin or product to demonize and label as "bad" for human health. From carbs and cruciferous vegetables to omega fatty acids and oils – there have been some pretty heavy campaigns trying to convince you of the problems these products pose to your long-term health.
Well, we have a bone to pick with one in particular: fat. Contrary to the rhetoric of the fad diet industry and online marketers, humans need healthy amounts of fat for brain function, neurotransmitter production, and hormone regulation. Moreover, the lack of healthy fat in one's diet can cause some potentially deleterious effects on the body and mind.
Why the type of fat you eat matters
Let's start with a breakdown of the science behind fat consumption and some recent research about the different types of fat and what they do to the body. First and foremost, there is some pretty compelling evidence of why fat is actually your friend and why it's critical for nourishing your brain health and supporting your neurochemistry.
If you need any proof that what contributes to a healthy heart also makes for a healthy brain, a Brigham and Women's Hospital study published in Annals of Neurology offers some compelling evidence.
Researchers in this study found that one bad dietary fat in particular – saturated fat, found in foods such as red meat, dairy products and butter – may be especially harmful to your brain. Researchers analyzed food surveys of over 6,000 older women and the results of their cognitive testing over time.
Total fat intake didn't seem to affect women's brain function, but the TYPE of fat did. Women with the most saturated fat in their diets performed worst; women with the most monounsaturated fat in their diet, from foods such as olive oil, nuts, seeds, or avocado, performed the best.
Extrapolating the results of this study, and others, saturated fat is believed to cause major inflammation and artery damage, while plant-based monounsaturated fat has been shown to actually LOWER inflammation levels in the body.
Becoming a "qualitarian"
Don’t categorically demonize fat, because not all kinds of fat are created equal. We suggest you become a "qualitarian" in terms of selecting the RIGHT kinds of fat for your body.
It’s about being aware of the quality of the fat you’re consuming and mindfully selecting the right kind of monounsaturated fats that nourish your brain. Good brain-healthy sources like avocado, coconut, sprouted nuts like walnuts and brazil nuts, hemp seeds, chia seeds, olives, microalgae, spirulina, chlorella, dark chocolate, and full-fat yogurts.
Also, people are big on the ketogenic diet right now, which highlights fat as a primary source of nutrition. The theory and practice of the ketogenic diet involve intermittent fasting, usually for a minimum of 12-16 hours in a 24 hour period, combined with zero sugar, ultra-low carbohydrate intake, and higher consumption of fat and protein.
Essentially, the theory is that when your body doesn’t have sugar and carbs to burn for fuel, it burns fat, thereby increasing weight loss and maintaining lean muscle mass. You CAN do a healthy version of the keto diet by focusing on plant-based monounsaturated fats from avocado, coconut, sprouted nuts, and other low-carb, high-fat sources.
Ugh, what about oils, though?
Speaking of fat, there’s a lot of contention about oils in the wellness world. Some say moderate amounts are good for your heart, while others say they’re too calorie-dense. I personally use oils for cooking in moderation and use them in dressings, sauces, and savory dishes for flavor and texture.
When using oils for cooking, it’s important to select oils that have a high smoke point. This means the oils can sustain high-temperature cooking (usually above 500 degrees) without losing their molecular bonds, thereby becoming rancid and indigestible. My favorite oils for cooking are organic grapeseed oil, sunflower oil, coconut oil, algae oil, and sesame oil. Again, I don’t go ballistic on using oils, but as a chef, I do think they add a lot to the experience of a dish when used mindfully.
Science shows that our brains are composed of 60 percent fat. That being the case, it should come as no surprise that our brains need fat to work correctly. And even though the brain accounts for such a small portion of our body weight, it utilizes 20 percent of the body’s metabolic energy.
Good nutrition in general is key to maintaining a healthy brain (and keeping the rest of you healthy!) That’s one reason why I think ultra-low fat diets are not a good idea long-term. I feel that it’s literally starving our brains from essential nutrition and omega fatty acids that it needs to function properly. We have nothing personal against fruitarians, but we think that humans absolutely need healthy fats in our diets for our brains to function optimally.
In fact, studies show that nutrition affects brain development and function throughout our lives. Fueling your brain with fat, in particular, encourages ketosis, which provides energy to the brain and helps protect against brain diseases, among other health benefits.
A diet high in monounsaturated fats can also increase the production of acetylcholine, a key neurotransmitter that plays a very important role in your learning, cognition, and memory.
No matter how you slice it, don’t push fat out of your diet. Just select high-quality, plant-based fats to nourish your brain, rev up your metabolism, and keep your body in ketosis (if you’re into that lifestyle!)