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When you take out water weight, your brain is about 60 percent fat. This stunning statistic is a reflection of the key role that fats play in our brain’s structure, function, and later its health.
Despite the obvious need for fats in our brains and elsewhere, health experts spent decades convincing the public to adopt a generalized “low fat” diet. The lack of evidence for these blanket recommendations has now become much clearer.
And especially as it relates to brain health, we’re now understanding that prioritization of certain types of dietary fat may in fact be beneficial to our cognitive and mental wellness. Here’s where the research stands on 3 top contenders when it comes to healthy dietary oils/fats for the brain.
1. Olive oil
One of the strongest correlations between health benefits (including brain benefits) and diet relates to the Mediterranean diet. This dietary pattern tends to be described as rich in fruits, vegetables, fish, poultry, nuts, and olive oil. Eating closer to a Mediterranean diet was recently found to correlate with less brain atrophy and better memory in a study published in the journal Neurology in 2021.
A number of components of this diet may confer brain benefits, including the richness of plant nutrients, fiber, and omega-3 fats. But much research has also focused specifically on the potential brain-boosting effects of extra-virgin olive oil, which is made up of unsaturated fats.
Extra-virgin olive oil (EVOO) is a form of olive oil obtained by extracting the oil from the olives without the use of heat or solvents. It’s known to be packed with plant nutrients called polyphenols which may have protective effects on our brains and bodies, including lowering of excessive inflammation, which is thought to be a major driver of brain diseases.
Research has also found that a diet rich in EVOO may beneficially affect the gut microbiome, which could then transfer benefits to brain health by way of the gut-brain axis. Finally, olive oil is rich in oleic acid, an unsaturated fat that may have healthful effects on metabolism. This is notable given that alterations in metabolic health are now strongly linked to risk for brain issues including dementia.
Because of all its unsaturated fats, olive oil is more prone to oxidation. This makes it important to keep it in a dark container out of the sun, and away from heat. Olive oil goes great on salads, on top of cooked and raw foods, and as a cooking oil. Though it’s been long thought that olive oil should be avoided at higher heat, some research indicates that it probably is more stable for frying and higher-temperature cooking.
2. Omega-3-rich foods including nuts, seeds, and fish
In the conversation about healthy brain fats, omega-3 fats (also known as omega-3 fatty acids) are always at the forefront. That’s because relative to other parts of the body, the brain is highly concentrated in omega-3 fats, especially docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), which makes up around 90 percent of the brain’s omega-3 content.
Low levels of brain DHA are linked to issues with neuron health, learning, and memory. Higher levels of DHA in the bloodstream are linked to better cognition. A number of biochemical pathways (for example, lowering of neuroinflammation) and human studies indicate a connection between omega-3 fatty acids and mood, and some data show lower levels of omega-3s in people with mood issues.
A wide range of plant and animal foods contain omega-3 fatty acids. Plant sources rich in omega-3 fatty acids include nuts and seeds (especially walnuts, flax, and chia seeds). However, it’s notable that plants’ omega-3s are primarily a molecule called alpha-linolenic acid (ALA). Though some research indicates potential brain benefits with ALA and ALA-containing foods, when it comes to brain health, most research is focused instead on the omega-3s eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and DHA.
ALA can be converted into EPA and then into DHA in our bodies, but this process is very inefficient. For this reason, many experts recommend the explicit consumption of EPA and DHA-rich foods (like wild salmon, mackerel, herring, and anchovies), or supplementation with omega-3 oils. (There are algae-derived versions for vegans.)
3. Coconut oil
Unlike omega-3s and the fats found in olive oil, the fat in coconut oil is mostly a form of saturated fat. While it’s true that some research connects saturated fat intake with negative health outcomes, there’s been a significant shift in the overall understanding of how saturated fats affect our bodies.
Like every aspect of science, nuance seems to be the key. And we’re now learning that coconut oil’s fats may in fact have positive effects on our bodies and potentially our brains, although this is much more controversial than the research around omega-3 fat sources and olive oil!
The most common fat in coconut oil is an interesting molecule called lauric acid, which makes up about 50 percent of coconut oil. Unlike many other fats, lauric acid is directly sent to the liver on absorption in our gut, where it is used for energy and converted into other molecules (instead of being stored as fat).
Lauric acid is also an example of a medium-chain fatty acid that is often incorporated into a medium-chain triglyceride (MCT). MCTs have recently been popularized for their potential role in brain health, in part because they can be converted into ketones, which are a non-glucose source of energy that the brain and other organs are able to use. Specifically, some research is investigating whether the ketones created by MCT consumption may serve to provide energy (and therefore cognitive) to the brains of people benefits with Alzheimer’s disease.
Other animal and test tube data suggests that coconut oil may help suppress inflammatory pathways. With all this said, compared with the data on olive oil and omega-3 fats, coconut oil’s link to brain health remains less substantiated.
When it comes to using coconut oil, there are several differences compared with olive oil. First, coconut oil will be solid or liquid depending on the temperature of the room (the oil’s melting point is around 76 degrees Fahrenheit). Many people like using coconut oil in place of butter for baking, but for very high-temperature cooking, it may not be as great an option. (Note that refined coconut oil is better for higher temperatures, but virgin coconut oil is richer in polyphenols.)