Why your brain needs fat

A local nutrition expert is urging South Africans to include enough ‘healthy fats’ in their diet to help their brains develop properly and function to their full potential.

As dieticians and nutritionists the world over put all their efforts into changing the perception that fat is ‘bad’, a South African nutrition expert has gone one step further and is urging parents to ensure their children get enough healthy fats in their diet to help their brains develop.

It is important for parents to seriously “consider the critical importance of certain dietary fats for the optimal development and functioning of the human brain, or face the consequences of children being unable to develop to their full potential”, says Professor Marius Smuts of Centre of Excellence in Nutrition at North-West University’s Potchefstroom campus.

He maintains that, in studies, South African schoolchildren who were fed a diet containing certain essential fats showed improved cognition.

The importance of fat in the diet
During a conference hosted by the International Union of Nutritional Sciences, Smuts claimed that specific ‘special quality fats’ are essential to the developing brain, and need to be maintained in the diet. He went on to add that dietary intake of these fats is not only important for babies and children, but remains important as we get older as a deficiency can accelerate mental deterioration and neurodegenerative diseases.

For a long time it was thought that the brain reached maturity and stopped developing in early childhood. However, Smuts said that recent research findings have shown that the brain continues to develop and grow right through childhood and into puberty. This means that a healthy diet including healthy fats is vital to ensure the brain is allowed to develop to its full potential.

Some fat can indeed be good for you, contrary to popular belief. He is trying to make people see that not all fats are bad.

“That generalisation should not directly apply to all fats. There are also special quality fats that we need to obtain from our habitual diet, the so-called essential fats (or EFAs) which are essential because the human body is incapable of producing them.”

Getting to grips with the good fats
So what are essential fats and do we really need them? According to Smuts, the answer is a resounding ‘yes’.

“EFAs are from two families of fats - omega-3 and omega-6 families. These are also the two families that need to live in harmony, because both their parents are essential.”

Yet while the body has the ability to produce some of the long-chain polyunsaturated fats by itself, this process is limited and this ability diminishes more and more as we age, “which gives rise for the need to complement them through our daily diet, most especially during infancy and ageing”.

Where to find good fats
Good food sources of omega 3 fats include fatty fish such as sardines, salmon, herring and mackerel, as well as flax seed oil, canola oil, soybean oil and nuts, particularly walnuts.

Omega 6 fatty acids can be found in vegetable oils such as sunflower oil, soybean oil, olive oil, corn oil and sesame oil, as well as some margarines containing a healthy blend of one or more of these oils.

Therefore, if we provide our body with these fats through a healthy diet, the body can then convert the essential fats into longer-chain polyunsaturated fats (PUFAs) or other hormone-like substances to “serve various important functions within the human body”.

This includes brain development and function, the stimulation of skin and hair growth, the maintenance of bone health, regulation of the metabolism, maintenance of reproductive capability, and also contributes towards the optimal functioning of the cardiovascular system and immune system.

Why the brain needs healthy fat
Smuts says that essential fats are built into every cell membrane and ensure the fluidity of cell membranes, which are liquid-based rather than solid structures and it’s these fatty acids which are also the most abundant fats in brain tissue”.

“To maintain a healthy body that hosts a healthy brain, adults and children alike should follow a healthy eating pattern that includes enough EFAs from both the omega-3 and omega-6 families. Essential fats like these are crucial to a cell’s health and therefore to an individual’s overall mental and physical wellness,” he said.

Proof is in the pudding
Smuts referred the a local study carried out by Dr Annalien Dalton under his supervision, which focused on the effect of essential fats on the cognitive development of 350 primary school children in Calvinia, Northern Cape. The results showed that when they increased their intake of omega-3 EFAs from a fish source, their cognitive ability improved significantly and they not only found learning easier, but remembered things more easily too.

The study also revealed that those same children also had fewer days absent from school, mainly due to a decreased occurrence of respiratory-related illnesses.

Reference: Professor Marius Smuts (Centre of Excellence in Nutrition at North-West University’s Potchefstroom campus).

(Amy Henderson, Health24, June 2009)

Read more:
The big fat truth uncovered
How to read food labels

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