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). Knowing which fats belong in your diet is essential to your health – as much as water is! Yet many people go “low-fat” or think that fat will make them fat (hint: it won’t).
Your brain needs fat — not only to survive, but to thrive! Your mitochondria (think of these as your cell’s energy factories) need fat to keep everything in your body and brain going! 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 fat for your brain.
Our Paleo Ancestors and The Science Of Fat
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 fat is essential for your brain. In fact, our Paleo ancestors likely consumed a low carb diet, eating animals for their protein and fat content, while avoiding tubers and other carbs (largely because they would have taken long periods of time to prepare).
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. Not only is being overweight at a pandemic level, we now have alarming rates of diabetes (costing us $245 billion per year) 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 ketogenic diet (very high in fat) can provide symptomatic and disease-modifying activity in a broad range of neurodegenerative disorders. This includes Alzheimer’s disease and Parkinson’s disease.
Our Paleo ancestors likely did not suffer from Alzheimer’s disease (though this was partially due to them not reaching old age) and they also were not obese. Is the secret here really dietary fat? It may be. To extrapolate more, the ketogenic diet (remember: it’s very high in fat) was originally designed for those suffering from seizures and/or epilepsy.
(Read: What You Need to Know Before Going on a Ketogenic Diet)
Why is this important? Because too much excitement in the brain causes seizures, basically. One way is by having too much glutamate. And GABA (the major inhibitory neurotransmitter for humans) is made from glutamate. But glutamate can also become aspartate, which is excitatory and neurotoxic (at high enough levels).
So by favoring a higher-fat diet, one may be helping glutamate become GABA, instead of aspartate. This is a plausible scientific mechanism, and also explains the increased rates of ADD we see in contemporary American society. Too many carbs, not enough fat = glutamate turning into aspartate instead of GABA. This leaves kids too excited to sit still. This is why science and neurology are vital tools, in unlocking diseases and health conditions.
Why Does Dietary Fat Matter?
Quite simply: if you don’t eat any fat — your brain can’t work 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.
Another scientific trial was able to reverse Alzheimer’s symptoms for the first time in history! What was their method which led to these groundbreaking results? Not drugs, as one might suspect. Instead, basically a Paleo lifestyle, with plenty of sleep, exercise and lots of dietary fat, while avoiding grains and inflammatory foods! Here, the results speak for themselves.
What Happens Without Fat?
Quite simply — nothing good! Things go haywire when one does not consume fat. In fact, you need omega-3 and omega-6 so badly that here is a small list of symptoms that are likely to occur when you don’t get enough fat in your diet.
- Dry, scaly, flaky, dull, or bumpy skin
- Dry, brittle, or lackluster hair
- Soft, peeling, splitting, or brittle fingernails
- Night blindness
- Confusion and disorientation
- Fatty food cravings
Note that “confusion” and “depression” are listed. Other doctors report “extreme mental fatigue” as a result of not including enough fat in the diet. There are also scientific reports of metabolic syndrome (that’s too much sugar, obesity, etc.) being linked to decreased amounts of brain tissue — specifically in the hippocampus and frontal lobes!
Since there has been a sharp increase of Alzheimer’s disease in the last four decades, the environment we live in seems to be playing a major role. So what has changed in the last four decades? Quite simply, everything! We are looking at screens all the time, sleeping less than ever, stressed like never before, eating less healthfully, exercising less, eating much more sugar and eating much less fat. 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 cholesterol is necessary for our survival. How has the American diet gotten it all wrong? That is an issue of politics and industry, and it has affected our health greatly. When we don’t eat fat, in a way, our cells starve. That is part of why we get dry skin, brittle hair, become confused and crave fatty foods. Our body is much smarter than we give it credit for — it is trying to correct the problem by telling us to eat something fatty!
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! Without mental health, there simply is no other kind of health.
What to Do
Make sure you include some fat in your diet! Check out our Guide To Ketogenic And Paleo Diets to learn more about fat in the diet, as well as get some ideas for meals with good fats in them. We also have a great 21-Day Paleo Meal Plan which will have all the best fats automatically included for you.
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! There is quite literally no good reason to leave out fat in the diet, since it is 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!
The Bottom Line
I’m going to guess that by now, you’re running to eat some fat, for fear of losing your brain cells! But things are not quite that bad. Remember that it is important to get the right kinds of fat, as well as a good balance of them. Do not load up on any single source of fat; simply 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.
It is also important to remove sugar, processed foods and grains, as none of these are helpful for your brain, either. Inflammation in the brain is not favorable, and all of the aforementioned foods cause inflammation in the brain. Your brain should be your number one priority — avoid injury, get sleep, keep stress low and avoid harmful habits. This is in addition to fueling it well with some great sources of fat!