Why a Low-Fat Diet is Dangerous
The human body was designed to love fatty foods in part because of the needs of the brain. We should choose the “good” kinds of fats, skipping the dangerous ones and adding plenty of brain-healthy ones.
The brain is made mostly of fat, which not only forms the membranes around cells that regulate what gets in and out of them but also insulates the bundles of nerve fibers that act as high-speed communication cables in the brain. It shouldn't be too shocking, then, to learn that fat is the single most important nutrient for protecting and preserving brain function. Eating a low-fat or, worse, a no-fat diet is actually the worst thing you can do for your brain. What the brain craves most are the omega-3 fats. They turn on the genes that determine how the brain develops, repair and preserve brain cells, enable the cells to deliver signals efficiently, and may even facilitate the growth of new cells. Studies show that without enough omega-3s, the brain can't function properly. Over time, lack of omega-3s may even contribute to the development of Alzheimer's disease. Unfortunately, most people don't eat nearly enough of these good fats.
Types of Omega 3s
Omega-3s come in three varieties: DHA (docosahexaenoic acid), EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid), and ALA (alpha-linolenic acid). Brain cells need all three kinds to maintain their structure and avoid premature aging, though the body has a much easier time using DHA and EPA than ALA.
ALA: Research suggests that ALA helps to protect brain cells and is involved in neuron-to-neuron communication.
EPA: Seems to act as an antioxidant and may help prevent brain cell damage during aging. But DHA is the brain superstar.
DHA: This fat concentrated in the frontal lobe of the brain and is critical for clear thinking, organization, alertness, learning, and reasoning. Low levels have been linked to memory and learning problems and even Alzheimer's disease. When scientists added DHA to the diets of mice bred to develop Alzheimer's disease, the mice had less of the brain plaques associated with the disease than mice who didn't get the DHA.
Omega-3s also help prevent blood clots, which reduces the risk of heart disease and stroke, two conditions that affect brain health. When you consider that omega-3s could cut your risk of developing Alzheimer's disease by more than half, it may be worth adding some of these foods to your weekly shopping list
Eat fish twice a week
You don't need to spend a lot of time, money, or effort to get there; even canned tuna and canned salmon count. (Choose canned light tuna rather than albacore; it comes from a short-lived fish that accumulates fewer toxins than long-lived albacore.) Fish is a perfect weeknight meal because it's ready in as little as 10 minutes. When possible, buy wild fish when it's available or, if you choose farmed, opt for organic farm-raised fish if you can afford it; it may contain fewer contaminants like mercury. Incidentally, canned salmon is made from wild fish-a bonus!
Make a not-tuna salad
Tuna isn't the only fish that can be used in salads. Try this basic recipe, and add your own twist: Flake or dice about 1 cup of any leftover cooked fish. Add 1/2 cup each of any three chopped vegetables, such as carrots, celery, peppers, onions, tomatoes, cucumbers, or broccoli. Add 1 tablespoon olive oil and 1 tablespoon reduced-fat mayonnaise. Season to taste with cracked pepper, red pepper flakes, turmeric, or fresh herbs. Mix well, and serve over a bed of lettuce or use as a sandwich filling.
Try these Salmon Sandwiches With Wasabi Mayonnaise
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Stock your freezer with frozen fish (not breaded)
Let it thaw in the fridge and you'll have dinner at the ready without making a trip to the fish counter.
Use oils lightly in cooking, liberally in eating
Some of the health benefits of oils are compromised when you heat the oil (never heat flaxseed oil because it can create harmful compounds). So cook with the minimal amount of oil needed—often no more than 1 tablespoon per pan. Instead, be generous with oils as condiments, or in preparation of sauces or toppings.
Switch to olive oil
When you have the choice of eating butter (full of artery-clogging saturated fat), margarine (many brands are loaded with toxic trans fat in the form of partially hydrogenated oil), or olive oil, which figures prominently in the Mediterranean diet, choose olive oil! Olive oil is a powerful antioxidant that also helps to reduce inflammation everywhere in the body, including the brain. Its powers against inflammation are so strong, in fact, that experts liken it to aspirin.
Olive oil also protects brain cell membranes and may help prevent age-related dementia. And it's good for your cholesterol (which in turn makes it good for your brain). One study found that when 28 men and women added 2 tablespoons of olive oil a day to their diets, they saw a 16 percent drop in LDL (“bad”) cholesterol. When you want a milder taste or an oil that survives heat better than olive oil does, go for canola oil; it's a much healthier choice than corn, safflower, or sunflower oil, all of which you should avoid because they can promote inflammation.
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Add walnuts to everything
They're terrific in salads, added to baked goods, and on top of cereal or even low-fat ice cream.
Invest in a bottle of walnut oil
This nut oil has a clean, delicate, slightly sweet flavor that is perfect for use in homemade salad dressings. Don't use it as a cooking oil, though, since it breaks down in heat and will turn bitter. You can also toss pasta with it. Or halve a piece of fruit, such as a peach, and brush it with a combination of walnut oil and honey, then roast or grill and serve with yogurt. Oils, especially nut oils, easily turn rancid when exposed to light, heat, and air, so store them tightly sealed in a cool, dark place and discard after 6 to 12 months.
Keep a bottle of flaxseed oil on hand
The taste is powerful and slightly bitter … a little goes a long way! Use flaxseed oil as a nutty flavor enhancer and finishing oil on veggie sandwiches and other raw foods or instead of margarine or butter on steamed vegetables and other cooked foods (but sprinkle only after the food is moved to a serving dish; heating flaxseed oil can create harmful compounds).
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Put some flaxseeds in your spice grinder
Buy whole flaxseeds in a natural foods store and grind them in a spice grinder. The whole seeds keep longer than grounds seeds. (If you eat the seeds whole, your body won't digest them and they'll come out the way they went in.) Sprinkle them on your morning cereal, your lunch salad, or a smoothie. Or add them to pancake or muffin batter. If a recipe calls for 1 cup flour, use 3/4 cup flour and 1/4 cup flaxseed meal instead. Be sure to store the seeds in the fridge or they'll go rancid fast.
Seeds are packed with good fat, protein, and vitamin E, and may even help you lower your cholesterol. Here's one great way to enjoy them along with another brain-healthy food, fish: Coat thin fish fillets (or chicken cutlets) with a mixture of crushed sunflower and pumpkin seeds, then panfry. Chopped seeds are also an interesting, crunchy addition to hot or cold cereal.
Halloween is right around the corner. Find out what to do with leftover pumpkin seeds.