The foods we eat have a dramatic influence on whether we feel energetic or lethargic. And they also affect how our brains function. Even though the brain accounts for about 2 percent of our total body weight, it’s hungrier than nearly any other organ: It consumes about 20 percent of the calories we take in! But it’s a fussy eater. To give your brain its get-up-and-go (and to help you concentrate and even deal with stress), you need specific types of fuel. Just like the rest of your body, your brain is powered primarily by carbohydrates (complex carbs are best). But it also needs specific types of fat, which act as building blocks to create the specialized cells that help our bodies think and feel. But not just any fat will do (told you your brain was fussy). To keep your brain thinking straight, you need omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids, and in the right ratio. “One of the problems with the typical American’s diet is that we eat too much fat overall, and especially too much saturated fat,” says Cindy Moore, MS, RD, director of the Nutrition Therapy Department at the Cleveland Clinic. Saturated fats are found mainly in meat and dairy products, and in palm and coconut oils. People who consume too much saturated fat (anything more than 7 percent of your total daily calories) increase the risk of developing heart disease and some cancers. The American Heart Association recommends replacing foods that are high in saturated fats with foods high in monounsaturated fats and polyunsaturated fats. And it’s these latter ones that contain brain-healthy omega-3s and 6s.
Omega-3s and 6s: Finding Balance
Omega-3 fatty acids are essential for healthy brain and heart function. In the brain, they effect the transmission of brain signals. For the heart, although the exact mechanisms are not clear, omega-3 fatty acids affect the clotting of platelets, which are responsible (in part) for heart attacks. Another possible way omega-3s positively impact heart health is by slightly reducing blood pressure. Omega-3s known as DHA and EPA are found in salmon, tuna, halibut, mackerel, sardines and herring, as well as in algae and krill. Some nuts (particularly walnuts), along with flaxseed and canola oil, contain another type of omega-3s, known as alpha-linolenic acids, or ALA. Your body needs all these omega-3s to function at its best, and it can’t produce them on its own, so they have to come from dietary sources. How much should we consume? Studies on omega-3s generally find a positive benefit in the range of 500 to 1,000 mg a day. Because of that, the American Heart Association now recommends that all adults eat two three-ounce portions of a variety of oily fish twice a week, which provides about 500 mg a day. The rest can come from tofu, soybeans and various nut oils.
Like omega-3s, omega-6 fatty acids are essential fuel for brain function. (They also play many other roles in our overall health.) The problem is that we tend to consume too many omega-6s — which are found in red meat and in the oils used to make processed snack foods, such as cookies and crackers — in relation to our intake of omega-3s. Ideally, we want to eat just two to four more times omega-6s than omega-3s. The typical American actually consumes 14 to 25 times more! That’s why brain- and heart-health experts advise following the Mediterranean diet, which features whole grains, fresh fruits and vegetables, fish, olive oil and garlic, with limited amounts of meat. The American Heart Association recommends limiting your daily intake of omega-6 fatty acids to between 5 and 10 percent of your daily calories.