If you think fat only affects your physique, we’ve got news for you. Studies show that keeping your mind sharp and your moods in balance may be largely related to the type of fat you eat. Omega-3 fatty acids are a form of polyunsaturated fat, and they’re arguably the closest you can get to a miracle food for the mind. Over the past decade, studies have linked omega-3 fatty acids to brain benefits ranging from better blood flow to improved mood and memory function.
“Our brain is at least 60 percent fat, and it’s composed of fats (like omega-3s) that must be obtained from the diet,” says Amy Jamieson-Petonic, MEd, a registered dietitian and the director of wellness coaching at the Cleveland Clinic and a national spokesperson for the American Dietetic Association. That’s one of the reasons why omega-3s are so important during pregnancy when the baby’s brain and nervous system are developing.
To improve brain health, experts recommend reducing the amount of saturated fat (which is very common in the American diet) and replacing it with healthy fats like olive oil and omega-3s. One of the best ways to make the switch is by following a Mediterranean diet — fruits, vegetables, whole grains, nuts, and fish. The staples of this diet are loaded with omega-3 fats such as alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), a plant-based fat found in flaxseed, pumpkin seeds, walnuts and canola oil, and eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), which are found in fish oil, cold-water fish and supplements.
Improve Memory and Cognition
The brain thrives on smooth signaling between nerve cells — and the body refreshes these connections with a new supply of fatty acids. In a study of 1,600 Dutch men and women published in Neurology, researchers found that those who ate fish regularly scored higher on a battery of tests for memory, psychomotor speed, cognitive flexibility and overall cognition. Moreover, the researchers claimed that consuming EPA and DHA specifically contributed to the boost in brainpower.
“Several studies show a link between omega-3 fatty acid docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) found in fish oil and decreased risk of Alzheimer’s disease as well as overall cognitive decline,” says Kristin Kirkpatrick, MS, RD, manager of disease reversal at the Cleveland Clinic. The best sources of DHA are fatty fish like mackerel, lake trout, herring, sardines, albacore tuna and salmon.
In one study, researchers tracked roughly 15,000 people in seven countries and found that those who ate the most fish were the least likely to develop dementia. Incidentally, they also found that eating meat increased the risk of dementia.
“There’s an interaction between diet and genes that determines how much and how soon plaques build up in the brain,” says Murali Doraiswamy, MD, professor of psychiatry, chief of the Biological Psychiatry Division at Duke University Medical Center and coauthor of The Alzheimer’s Action Plan. “For example, if rats eat a high-fat, high-cholesterol diet, their brains get riddled with these amyloid plaques.” Not so if they’re on a low-cholesterol diet.
Enhance Your Mood
Need more reasons to load up on healthful omega-3 fatty acids? Studies show omega-3s can improve your mood. Researchers think the powerful fatty acids help nerve cells communicate better. That means feel-good brain chemicals like serotonin and dopamine can get in and out of the cell more easily, translating to a better mood. In fact, researchers from the National Institutes of Health report that omega-3 fatty acids are as effective at treating major depressive illness as commonly prescribed antidepressant drugs. Other studies have found that frequent fish consumption is associated with a decreased risk of depression and suicidal thoughts. What’s more, there’s increasing evidence that omega-3s help alleviate symptoms associated with other mood disorders, including psychotic disorders and bipolar disorder.