Fats Feed Your Brain

Animal and vegetable sources of fat provide a concentrated source of energy in the diet and also provide the building blocks for cell membranes and a variety of hormones and hormone-like substances. Fats as part of a meal slow down absorption so that we can go longer without feeling hungry. They act as carriers for important fat-soluble vitamins A, D, E and K as well. Dietary fats are necessary for converting carotene to vitamin A, for mineral absorption and for a host of other important bodily processes.


Fats—or lipids—are a class of organic substances that are not soluble in water. In simple terms, fatty acids are chains of carbon atoms with hydrogen atoms filling the available bonds. They are classified as saturated, monounsaturated and polyunsaturated. 

Saturated: A fatty acid is saturated when all available carbon bonds are occupied by a hydrogen atom. They are highly stable, because all the carbon-atom linkages are filled—or saturated—with hydrogen. This means that they do not normally go rancid, even when heated for cooking purposes. They form a solid or semi-solid fat at room temperature. Your body makes saturated fatty acids from carbohydrates and they are found in animal fats and tropical oils.

Monounsaturated: Monounsaturated fatty acids have one double bond in the form of two carbon atoms double-bonded to each other and, therefore, lack two hydrogen atoms. Your body makes monounsaturated fatty acids from saturated fatty acids and uses them in a number of ways. They tend to be liquid at room temperature. Like saturated fats, they are relatively stable. They do not go rancid easily and hence can be used in cooking. The monounsaturated fatty acid most commonly found in our food is oleic acid, the main component of olive oil as well as the oils from almonds, pecans, cashews, peanuts and avocados.

Polyunsaturated: Polyunsaturated fatty acids have two or more pairs of double bonds and, therefore, lack four or more hydrogen atoms. The two polyunsaturated fatty acids found most frequently in our foods are omega-6; and omega-3. These fatty acids are considered “essential” because your body cannot make them. We must get these essential fatty acids (EFAs) from the foods we eat. They are liquid, even when refrigerated. They go rancid easily, particularly omega-3 linolenic acid, and must be treated with care. Polyunsaturated oils should never be heated or used in cooking.

All fats and oils, whether of vegetable or animal origin, are a combination of saturated, monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fatty acids. Animal fats like butter, lard and tallow contain about 40-60% saturated fat and are solid at room temperature. Vegetable oils from northern climates contain mostly polyunsaturated fatty acids and are liquid at room temperature. But vegetable oils from the tropics are highly saturated. Coconut oil, for example, is 92% saturated. These fats are liquid in the tropics but hard as butter in northern climes. Olive oil is from temperate climates, and is liquid at warm temperatures but hardens when refrigerated.

The Long and Short (Chains) of Fats

Fatty acids are also classified by their length which indicates how many carbon atoms are present.

Short-chain fatty acids have four to six carbon atoms. These fats are always saturated and are found mostly in butterfat from cows and goats. These fatty acids have antimicrobial properties protecting us from viruses, yeasts and pathogenic bacteria in the gut. They are directly absorbed for quick energy and are less likely to cause weight gain than olive oil or commercial vegetable oils.

Medium-chain fatty acids have eight to twelve carbon atoms and are found mostly in butterfat and tropical oils. These fats also have antimicrobial properties and are absorbed directly for quick energy. They contribute to the health of your immune system.

Long-chain fatty acids have from 14 to 18 carbon atoms and can be either saturated, monounsaturated or polyunsaturated. This group includes stearic acid found mainly in beef and mutton tallows, oleic acid found in olive oil and palmitoleic acid (which also has strong antimicrobial properties) found almost exclusively in animal fats. The two essential fatty acids are also long chain as is gamma-linolenic acid (GLA) found in evening primrose, borage and black currant oils. Your body makes GLA out of omega-6 linoleic acid and uses it in the production of substances called prostaglandins, hormones that regulate many processes at the cellular level.

Very-long-chain fatty acids have 20 to 24 carbon atoms and are typically highly unsaturated. Some people can make these fatty acids from EFA’s, but others, particularly those whose ancestors ate a lot of fish, lack enzymes to produce them. These individuals must obtain them from animal foods such as organ meats, egg yolks, butter and fish oils. These fatty acids are used by your body in the production of prostaglandins and some play important roles in the function of the nervous system.

Good Fats vs Bad Fats

Now that you have some background information, how do you know which are good fats and which are bad? At the turn of the 20th century, most of the fatty acids in the diet were either saturated or monounsaturated, primarily from butter, lard, tallows, coconut oil and small amounts of olive oil. Beginning in the 1950's, we began to get the message that saturated fats are bad and we should reduce our consumption of fats, particularly animal fats. The theory, called the lipid hypothesis, proposed that there is a direct relationship between the amount of saturated fat and cholesterol in the diet and the incidence of coronary heart disease. The vegetable oil and food processing industries, who were the main beneficiaries of this research, began promoting and funding further research designed to support the lipid hypothesis. Remember the lowfat diet craze? And margarine? Fast forward a few years and researchers found that those who remain fat-free for any length of time developed a variety of health problems including low energy, difficulty in concentration, depression, weight gain and mineral deficiencies.

Think about it.... Mother’s milk provides a higher proportion of cholesterol than almost any other food. It also contains over 50% of its calories as fat, much of it saturated fat. Both cholesterol and saturated fat are essential for growth in babies and children, especially the development of the brain. Commercial formulas are typically low in saturated fats and soy formulas have no cholesterol. Studies have linked lowfat diets with failure to thrive in children. New research into Alzheimer's disease also indicates that we need more fat in the diet to protect the brain against dementia. Your brain needs fat!

Saturated fats, which older, flawed studies tell us to avoid, have been shown now not to be the cause of our modern diseases. In fact, they play several key roles in our body chemistry:

  • Saturated fatty acids make up at least 50% of the cell membranes and give our cells necessary stiffness and integrity.
  • They play a vital role in the health of our bones. For calcium to be effectively absorbed into the skeletal structure, at least 50% of the dietary fats should be saturated.
  • They lower a substance in the blood that indicates the potential for heart disease and they protect the liver from alcohol and other toxins.
  • They enhance the immune system.
  • Saturated stearic acid and palmitic acid are the preferred foods for the heart, which is why the fat around the heart muscle is highly saturated. The heart draws on this reserve of fat in times of stress.
  • Short- and medium-chain saturated fatty acids have important antimicrobial properties. They protect us against harmful microorganisms in the digestive tract.

Today most of the fats in the typical American diet are polyunsaturated from vegetable oils derived mostly from soy, as well as from corn, safflower and canola. Excess consumption of polyunsaturated oils has been shown to contribute to a large number of disease conditions including increased cancer and heart disease; immune system dysfunction; damage to the liver, reproductive organs and lungs; digestive disorders; depressed learning ability; impaired growth; and weight gain. The main reason they cause so many health issues is because they go rancid easily when exposed to heat and cooking, including modern processing methods. They become free radicals that attack our red blood cells and cell membranes, and damage our DNA and even our skin.

One acceptable method of modern processing of oils is expeller-expressed. These unrefined oils will remain fresh for a long time if stored in the refrigerator in dark bottles. This process is gentle and preserves the integrity of the fatty acids and natural preservatives. When selecting vegetable oils, look for these expeller-pressed or expeller-expressed oils.

Most people know by now to skip any hydrogenated or partially-hydrogenated oils. These are polyunsaturated oils that are usually inferior or rancid to begin with and that are further processed making them toxic to your body. Stay away from them!

All Fats are Not Created Equal

Include saturated fats in your diet. This includes butter (especially from grass-fed cows), and other fat-soluble vitamin containing animal fats like fish, shellfish, fish eggs, and organ meats.

Butterfat has many benefits. Raw butter, cream and whole milk contain an “anti-stiffness” factor that prevents the degeneration of joints, and also protects against hardening of the arteries, cataracts and calcification of the pineal gland, but it is only present in unpasteurized butter, cream and milk. Butter contains fatty acids that have antimicrobial, anti-fungal, anti-tumor and immune-system-supporting properties. Many trace minerals are also incorporated into butterfat, including manganese, zinc, chromium, selenium and iodine.

Duck and Goose Fat contain about 35% saturated fat, 52% monounsaturated fat and about 13% polyunsaturated fat. Duck and goose fat are quite stable and are highly prized in Europe for frying potatoes.

Lard or pork fat is about 40% saturated, 48% monounsaturated and 12% polyunsaturated. Beef and Mutton Tallows are 50-55% saturated, about 40% monounsaturated and contain small amounts of the polyunsaturates, usually less than 3%. Suet, which is the fat from the cavity of the animal, is 70-80% saturated. Suet and tallow are very stable fats and can be used for frying.

Olive Oil contains stable monounsaturated fat, along with 13% saturated fat, 10% omega-6 linoleic acid and 2% omega-3 linolenic acid. The high percentage of oleic acid makes olive oil ideal for salads and for cooking at moderate temperatures. Extra virgin olive oil is also rich in antioxidants. It should be cloudy, indicating that it has not been filtered, and have a golden yellow color, indicating that it is made from fully ripened olives. Olive oil has withstood the test of time; it is the safest vegetable oil you can use, but don’t overdo. The longer chain fatty acids found in olive oil are more likely to contribute to the buildup of body fat than the short- and medium-chain fatty acids found in butter, coconut oil or palm kernel oil.

Researchers are just beginning to discover the dangers of excess omega-6 oils in the diet, whether rancid or not. Use of these oils should be strictly limited. They should never be consumed after they have been heated, as in cooking, frying or baking. This includes Safflower, Corn, Sunflower, Soybean and Cottonseed Oils. Sesame and Peanut oil also should be strictly limited due to their high content of omega-6 oils.

Canola Oil - The newest oil on the market, canola oil was developed from the rape seed, a member of the mustard family. Rape seed is unsuited to human consumption because it contains a very-long-chain fatty acid called erucic acid, which under some circumstances is associated with fibrotic heart lesions. It also goes rancid very quickly.

Flax Seed Oil contains 9% saturated fatty acids, 18% oleic acid, 16% omega-6 and 57% omega-3. With its extremely high omega-3 content, flax seed oil provides a remedy for the omega-6/omega-3 imbalance so prevalent in America today. It should always be kept refrigerated, never heated, and consumed in small amounts in salad dressings and spreads.

Tropical Oils such as Coconut Oil, Palm Oil, Red Palm Oil and Palm Kernal Oil are more saturated that vegetable oil. Of particular interest is lauric acid, found in large quantities in both coconut oil, palm kernal oil and in mother’s milk. This fatty acid has strong anti-fungal and antimicrobial properties. These oils are extremely stable and can be kept at room temperature for many months without becoming rancid. They can be used for cooking and baking.

Each oil performs best within a certain range of temperature. Some are made for high heat cooking, while others have intense flavors that are best enjoyed by drizzling directly on food.  The smoke point of an oil or fat is the temperature at which it gives off smoke and depends to a very large extent on its purity and age at the time of measurement. A simple rule of thumb is that the lighter the color of the oil, the higher its smoke point. When frying, it is important to choose an oil with a very high smoking point. Most foods are fried between the temperatures of 350-450 degrees Fahrenheit so it is best to choose an oil with a smoking point above 400 degrees. To learn more about what oils can be used for different types of cooking based on smoke point, go here

For high quality organic oils, try Spectrum Organics


Your choice of fats and oils is very important. Most people, especially infants and growing children, benefit from more fat in the diet rather than less. But the fats we eat must be chosen with care. Avoid all processed foods containing newfangled hydrogenated fats and polyunsaturated oils. Instead, use traditional vegetable oils like extra virgin olive oil and small amounts of unrefined flax seed oil. Acquaint yourself with the merits of coconut oil for baking and with animal fats for occasional frying. Eat egg yolks and other animal fats with the proteins to which they are attached. And, finally, use as much good quality butter as you like. It is wholesome and a essential food for you and your whole family. 

Be sure to check out the Recipe of the Month - Spicy Kale and Coconut Stirfry.

Posted in Nutrition