Healthy Fat and Memory

June 12, 2015
Leigh Erin Connealy, M.D.

It’s all but embedded in our dietary culture that fat and cholesterol are the devil’s way of making us overweight.  An entire “no-fat, low-fat, fat-free, cholesterol-free” industry thrives around this notion.

Please exorcise this devilish notion and stop eating foods that make such claims. The right fats and cholesterol are your body’s way of keeping you healthy.

Every cell in your body contains hefty helpings—necessary helpings—of both fat and cholesterol.

Your brain?

It’s 60% fat.

Of that 60%?

More than 25% is cholesterol.

The hormones and neurotransmitters essential to keep us functioning?

They’re made of cholesterol—found in only one natural place: animal fats.

Fats fighting cognitive impairment

Among the most exciting research underway are studies of exactly which fats are most effective in preventing, reversing, or slowing the advance of diet-related diseases (in my opinion, that’s all diseases).

Given our current and growing overload of longer-living seniors, with the ever-accelerating risk and incidence of cognitive impairment, I’m paying close attention to studies that could provide effectove answers to Alzheimer’s’ and similarly debilitating diseases.

Several studies have already concluded that the Mediterranean diet, rich in clean, hormone- and pesticide-free vegetables, fruits, lean meat, and fish, is heart-healthy and reduces bad cholesterol and risk of stroke.

Add fats, eat, and repeat

In one new study, older patients already on the Mediterranean diet increased their olive oil and nut consumption. They exhibited better cognitive functioning and memory than patients on a low-fat diet.

Low-fat: strike 1.

Other studies have shown that turbocharging the Mediterranean diet with those additional nut and oil fats may also reduce the risk of cancer, Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s disease.

Low-fat: strike 2.

Omega-3 fish oil is among my favorite health-giving fats.  A new study found that fish oil supplements helped people with no cognitive impairment stay that way.

The participants who were taking fish oil also showed less brain tissue loss.  That’s a welcome, proven cause-and-effect moment: fish oil had a physically visible impact.

Low-fat: strike 3.

Further such findings could radically change our perceptions of dementia and other devastating, life-threatening cognitive impairments from inevitable to preventable.

In another study, participants, with an average age of 67, were assigned to one of three groups:

  • 155 followed a Mediterranean diet supplemented with extra virgin olive oil
  • 147 followed a Mediterranean diet supplemented with mixed nuts
  • 145 ate a low-fat diet

After 4 years:

  • The low-fat group saw a decline in mental function
  • The added-nut group saw improved memory compared to the low-fat group
  • The olive oil group saw improved memory, reasoning, and problem-solving compared to the low-fat group.

The conclusion? Fats are our friends, not our enemies. In these cases, olive oil and nuts, rich in antioxidants, are the heroes.

Low-fat: ejected from the game. 

How to fatten up right

As I’ve noted, your first step is to leave behind the notions that fat is bad, and that therefore, no-fat and low-fat are good.  Those ideas are just wrong.

And as always, I urge you to start with a conversation with your doctor. That’s because your current diet is the key factor in figuring out the next steps you should take—if any.

Add nuts and extra virgin olive oil to your diet?

Add a fish-oil supplement if you don’t eat fresh fish three times a week?

Probably.

More of either or both of those fine fats could make you healthier now—and healthier in a longer-lasting, happier future.

Take good care.

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