Updated: May 29
3 Big Reasons, And some of my favorite healthy fats
By Austin Perlmutter, MD
Most of your brain is made of fat
Choosing healthy fats may support brain structure, energy and immune balance
Olive oil, fatty fish, nuts, seeds and avocados are some great sources of healthy fat
1. Fat Makes Up Brain Structure:
Your brain is mostly fat by weight (when you take of out the water). It’s actually one of the fattiest organs in your body. Certain fats in particular seem to play vital roles in your brain’s structural integrity. These include omega-3 fats (especially DHA) which is mainly sourced from diet. One of the best ways to provide your brain with the necessary fats for healthy structure is to eat foods rich in omega-3s, especially DHA and its precursor, EPA. Great sources of dietary omega-3 fats include flaxseeds and chia seeds (they contain another precursor omega-3 called ALA) as well as direct sources of EPA and DHA like fatty fish including salmon, mackerel, anchovies, sardines and herring
2. Fat can become a brain energy source:
While your brain does run primarily on glucose, we’re now learning that molecules called ketone bodies can be used as a backup fuel source. Ketone bodies (also called “ketones”) are made in the body in periods of starvation as well as in conditions of low carbohydrate availability (aka, a low carb or “keto” diet). Ketone bodies are produced through fat metabolism. Though some research is pointing at a potential benefit to some people with fasting, consuming a low-carb/keto diet or even taking supplemental ketones, there’s not great large-scale human data that this benefits the average person’s brain just yet.
3. Fat is Involved in Inflammatory regulation: Unchecked chronic inflammation is well known to be a damaging force in overall and brain health. In fact, it may be one of the key drivers in conditions ranging from depression to dementia. Research has made it clear that fats play a role in inflammatory regulation. For example, trans-fats appear to increase inflammation. Omega-3 fats, on the other hand, seem to quell excess inflammation, and may especially do so in the brain. Again, fatty fish as well as plant sources like hemp seeds are where we can get omega-3 fats, and if you aren’t getting enough from diet (most recommend around 2 grams per day) some may benefit from supplementation. There’s also emerging data suggesting that olive oil may offer neuroprotective benefits, in part through inflammatory regulation.
Generally speaking, we’ve become a relatively fat-phobic society with concerns that the fat in our diet and in our bodies is always bad. Yet like everything in biology, the truth is far more nuanced. There’s definitely good data that certain forms of fat are less than optimal and indeed, sometimes toxic to our health (see again, trans-fats). But most people will likely benefit from inclusion of healthy fats in their diet each day. Overall, consuming more unsaturated fats (which are found in foods like olive oil, avocado, nuts and seeds, as well as omega-3 rich-seafood sources as above), may be the best bet for reaping the benefits of fats as it relates to the brain.
Want more on brain healthy foods? Check out my top tips on a brain-healthy breakfast