Your brain needs dietary fat thrive. Here’s why it’s so important – and what happens when it doesn’t get enough.
Did you know there is no such thing as an essential carbohydrate? That’s right – you don’t need carbs at all! However, there are definitely essential fats (technically, essential fatty acids) that are just as important to your health as getting enough water. Yet many people go “low-fat” or think that fat will make them fat.
In fact, ketogenic diets remove all carbohydrates and subsist solely on protein and fat – which are technically the only two macronutrients needed to sustain life. But you don’t need to go to those extreme lengths to understand the absolute necessity of dietary fat for your brain.
How Dietary Fat Keeps Us Healthy
Your brain runs off of glucose – but it can also run off of ketone bodies, which are created during periods of low carbohydrate consumption. In fact, some argue that our brains run better off of ketone bodies.
While I’ll leave that for researchers in the field of neurology to debate, there’s no doubt that dietary fat is essential for your brain. In fact, our Paleo ancestors likely consumed a low carb diet, eating meat as their main source of protein and fat.
As we’ve changed into a sedentary lifestyle that subsists on grains, our brains may have suffered as a result. Obesity is also at an all-time high, as 70% of the US is now overweight. We also have alarming rates of diabetes and dementia.
What is the commonality among all three health issues? They are largely a result of moving from a high-fat, brain friendly diet, into a low-fat, brain unfriendly diet.
In fact, scientists have found that a high-fat ketogenic diet can provide help improve symptoms of a broad range of neurodegenerative disorders, including Alzheimer’s disease and Parkinson’s. A keto diet can help improve symptoms of Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s diseases.
One scientific trial was actually able to reverse Alzheimer’s symptoms for the first time in history. These ground-breaking results weren’t induced by drugs, but instead by embracing a Paleo lifestyle, with plenty of sleep, exercise and lots of dietary fat, while avoiding grains and inflammatory foods.
The high fat ketogenic diet was originally designed for those suffering from seizures and/or epilepsy. Why is this important? Because too much excitement in the brain causes seizures, and one way is by having too much glutamate.
At high enough levels, glutamate can become aspartate, which is excitatory and neurotoxic. At lower levels, glutamate can become GABA, the major inhibitory neurotransmitter for humans. A high fat diet can cure seizures simply by preventing glutamate in the brain from becoming neurotoxic.
So by favoring a higher-fat diet, one may be helping glutamate become GABA instead of aspartate. This may also explain the increased rates of ADD we see in kids today, as too many carbs and not enough fat leaves children too excited to sit still.
Quite simply: if you don’t eat any fat, your brain can’t function well. If the only energy you give your brain and body is carbohydrate (for our purposes, think “glucose”) your brain won’t get much GABA, and it will be overrun with aspartate. This may also be why we see improvements in those with bipolar disorder when they stick to a more healthful diet.
In fact, a correlation appears between bipolar disorder and disordered eating, leading us into the “chicken or the egg” problem, of what exactly diet is doing to our brains.
What Happens Without Fat?
Quite simply – nothing good! Things go haywire when one does not consume fat. In fact, if you don’t get enough dietary fat, these symptoms are likely to occur:
- Dry, scaly skin
- Damaged or lackluster hair
- Brittle fingernails
- Night blindness
- Confusion and disorientation
- Extreme mental fatigue
- Metabolic syndrome
These symptoms and diseases have increased over time. Why? Because in addition to eating less fat, we are sleeping less than ever, stressed like never before, exercising less and indulging in more sugar and processed foods.
Of these changing aspects of American life, the “less fat, more sugar” issue may be having the biggest negative impact on our brains (although no doubt the effect of all these factors is cumulative).
Fat provides the basic framework for our cells, and is necessary for our survival. Think of a car: without the right kind of gasoline, things start to go wrong. Your brain is the car in this scenario – and you don’t want to be fueling your brain incorrectly!
How to Get More Fat in Your Diet?
To get your brain on the fast track to health, check out our 21-Day Paleo Meal Plan which makes sure you get all the best fats on a daily basis.
For a balanced diet, remember to eat a wide variety of healthy fats, as well as good sources of protein, and include a moderate amount of carbohydrates. The Ultimate Paleo Diet Shopping List is an excellent place to start to find ideas of good fats to consume.
Whatever you do, though, do not go low fat! It will not work for you in the long term (especially in the cognition department) and in fact, low-fat diets lost out to high-fat diets in the category of weight loss, as well.
It is also important to remove sugar, processed foods and grains, as none of these pro-inflammatory foods are helpful for your brain, either. Get plenty of sleep, keep stress low and avoid harmful habits to keep your brain in tip-top shape.
Bottom Line: There is quite literally no good reason to omit fat in your diet, as it’s such a vital element for cognition, our cells and a myriad of other functions. And remember: there is no such thing as an essential carbohydrate, but there are essential fats!
Written by Casey Thaler
Casey Thaler, B.A., NASM-CPT, FNS is an NASM® certified personal trainer and NASM® certified fitness nutrition specialist. He writes for Paleo Magazine®, The Paleo Diet® and Greatist®. He is also an advisor for Kettle and Fire and runs his own nutrition and fitness consulting company, Eat Clean, Train Clean®.
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