My Fatty Brain

In my life I’ve had a few unhappy moments of weight gain realization rise up and confront me.  For instance in college, when I gained the freshman 10 or 15 and was teased about ‘filling out’; and more recently once or twice in the past 15 years when I noticed my expanding back side, and had to act.  However, I’ve never once in my life been concerned about my large percentage of brain fat, comprising 2/3 of my brain.  Maybe ignorance really is bliss.  Luckily for me, my brain took care of its fat needs on what it was fed, and some synthesis of its own.

Most people have been led to believe that consuming fat is bad for our health, especially saturated fats.  Many fad diets out there are low fat, and are accommodated by fat-free or low-fat foods in our grocery stores.  However, fat is our body’s main energy form, and without fat in our diet we would starve our brains to death.  We need fat for many things such as nutrient absorption that carbs and protein cannot facilitate, transmitting nerve signals, regulation of bodily functions, cell signaling along with their membrane integrity,  and healthy, lustrous skin.  With such big tasks to do, do we really want to restrict our fat consumption?

Let’s take a look at how we got to our current beliefs.  In 1856, German pathologist Virchow formulated the ‘lipid hypothesis’, proposing that saturated fats and cholesterol accumulate in the blood to form plaque in our arterial walls, causing atherosclerosis and heart disease.  By the end of the century this belief was becoming accepted in America, and in 1911 Proctor & Gamble ran with it and began selling hydrogenated cottonseed oil, a lard alternative, better known as Crisco.  Their first ad campaign introduced the all-vegetable shortening as “a healthier alternative to cooking with animal fats. . . and more economical than butter.”

In 1956, the American Heart Association officially recommended a low fat diet after American scientist Ancel Keys hypothesized that a diet high in animal fat/cholesterol (butter, lard, eggs, beef, and milk) led to heart disease, and that these saturated fats have adverse effects opposite to the beneficial effects of the unsaturated fats found in vegetable oils.  For almost the past 60 years, the Dietary Guidelines for Americans has recommended consuming less than 10% of our total calories from saturated fat, saying it increases our LDL levels of cholesterol and increases our risk for heart disease.

So after 100 years with fat as the enemy, and aiming toward lower fat diets, are we healthier as a nation?  According to the CDC, heart disease is the leading cause of death in the United States today.  Unfortunately, the data used over the past 100 years to support the low fat/low cholesterol diet was incomplete and misleading, based to a large extent on a 1913 study on rabbits.  In the study, they fed the rabbits 5% of their calories in animal sources of cholesterol, equivalent to a human eating 100 eggs a day.  Being herbivores who eat grass, the rabbits’ system had no metabolic use for the dietary cholesterol, and therefore their bodies eventually had cholesterol accumulation in their arteries, or atherosclerosis – but they still didn’t have heart attacks like we do!

It has been found now that our dietary consumption of cholesterol is a small factor in our body’s cholesterol level, as our liver produces about 75 to 85% on its own, and our diet provides the rest.  It has been found that our bodies produce less cholesterol when we eat a good amount of it, and produce more cholesterol when we eat less of it.  Being necessary and central to its functioning, our brains contain 25% of our cholesterol.  Cholesterol is not the problem, it is inflammation in our arteries and other tissues that is the problem; trans fats being a contributing factor, along with lack of exercise, too much refined and processed food in our diet, stress, and lack of sleep.

Alternative thinking has been emerging over the past 20 years, and many now realize the benefits of mono and poly unsaturated fats that are found in nuts, avocados, olive oil, salmon, catfish, tuna, and fish oil capsules to get the important Omega 3 fatty acids.  Yet, even though our thinking about some fats is starting to change, saturated fat is still vilified.   Most people think saturated fat and trans fat are synonymous, but they are not.  Our bodies need saturated fat for important hormone production, especially when our bodies are less capable of making them as babies (hence the importance of breast feeding over formula), and when we age.  Also, our heart needs saturated fat to work in a healthy and effective way, and saturated fat is involved in genetic regulation and cancer prevention.

It has only been recently that researchers are discovering that both fat and cholesterol are severely deficient in the Alzheimer’s brain. Dr. Stephanie Seneff of MIT, who has done extensive research on Alzheimer’s disease said, “In a remarkable recent study, it was found that Alzheimer’s patients have only 1/6 of the concentration of free fatty acids in the cerebrospinal fluid compared to individuals without Alzheimer’s.  An extremely high-fat diet has been found to improve cognitive ability in Alzheimer’s patients.”

The true enemies of our health are refined, white carbohydrates (, high fructose corn syrup, aspartame, and trans fats.  Trans fats are created from unsaturated fats, artificially saturating them through a chemical process during manufacturing called hydrogenation, as in partially hydrogenated vegetable oil.  In this way they can be used for cooking at high temperatures, like naturally saturated oils such as coconut and palm, without imparting any flavor of their own like the tropical oils do.  They are cheaper to produce, and give products longer shelf life; however they lead to inflammation in our tissues and arteries, as well as oxidation of the blood cholesterol in our arteries.  Many restaurants and most all fast food places use some form of hydrogenated oil in their cooking – another reason to cook at home more often.

So try to severely limit the food you buy that comes in a box or bag, for there is a big probability it contains either refined carbs, or uses partially hydrogenated oils in the baking or cooking process.  Avoid breaded deep fried foods when at restaurants as that is a double whammy with the refined white flour breading, and the frying with hydrogented oil.  When we’re young we can get away with this abuse for a while, but it can and will catch up with you, and most likely already has in ways seen and unseen.  Lack of respect and appreciation for our amazing bodies leads not only to physical damage, but also to mental and psychological damage, so give your body the fuel it needs and wants with natural and real foods.  Don’t be afraid of saturated fats, for they are the most nutritionally dense foods out there, the most satisfying to your hunger pangs, and will keep you full longer.  Drop the margarine and buy butter, get the ’2% fat’ yogurt and milk rather than ‘fat-free’, keep the grilled steak and roasted pork, and even enjoy the skin of your baked chicken every now and again!

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