The story is all over the news this week… headlines are sounding off that a new study finds “Eating lots of carbs causes mental decline” and “High carb diet means cognitive impairment.”
But while it’s good to know that eating too much sugar and basing your diet on grains and other carbohydrate foods is bad for you, the media is missing the important point.
That point was hidden in the study, but no one else is talking about it.
The study found it was fat that protects your brain.
Eat the Right Fats and Lower
Your Risk of Dementia by 44%
What the researchers did was follow 940 people with no signs of dementia or mental impairment. After four years, 200 of them started show mild impairment.
And what they found was that the people who ate foods high in carbohydrates were nearly twice as likely to develop mild cognitive impairment. A diet high in sugar makes you 1.5 times as likely to become mentally impaired.1
As I said, that’s good to know. And it was also good that they found eating more protein reduced the risk of mental decline by 21%. But the most important thing the researchers discovered is that people with the highest fat intake had a 44% reduced risk of cognitive impairment.
When comparing people who ate more fat to people who ate more carbs and sugar, higher fat intake meant the risk for dementia was 133% lower.
The message is clear: It’s fat, not protein or carbs, that keeps your brain healthy.
The question is, what is the right amount of fat to eat?
Today, we eat about 55% of our calories from carbs, 35% from fat and only 15% from protein, according to the USDA.2 That carb-heavy ratio has presided over the explosion of obesity, diabetes and Alzheimer’s in history.
Problem is, it’s not as simple as “no carbs or sugar, just eat protein” like some would have you believe.
For one thing, your brain needs huge amounts of glucose (sugar) to function. Also, it’s not a particularly good idea to overload on protein. That can cause your thyroid to downregulate its function, leading to fatigue, depression and more obesity.
That’s why the best thing to do is start with enough fat. Fat, especially saturated fat, is the cleanest energy source we have. Unlike carbs and proteins, when you metabolize fat, it doesn’t create any toxic byproducts that need to be eliminated.
So what’s the best ratio? There’s all kinds of advice out there on this… the zone diet, a paleo diet, the 3:4:1 approach… but really, all you need to know is this:
Our ancestors never ate “lean” meats or “whole” grains unless times were harsh and good food was scarce.
Why You Should “Eat Fat First“
The nearest we can average from many anthropological knowledge bases is that they ate a diet that was around 15% carbs, 20% protein and a full 65% fat by calories.
It’s important to remember, this is not by weight in grams, but by calories.
Sounds like a lot, until you realize that simple, healthy foods usually have a huge ratio of fat calories inherent in them as compared to other macronutrients.
Take an almond. One ounce as 161 calories, 116 or so of which are fat. That’s 72% fat.
How about a chicken leg? One ounce has 52 calories, but 31 of them are from fat. That’s 60%. Or maybe bison, one of the healthiest game meats… 62 calories an ounce, exactly 65% from fat.
An avocado? 47 calories an ounce and 76% of those calories are from fat.3
I could go on, but as you can see, nature’s inherent ratio of fats to total calories is pretty high for some of the healthiest foods in the world.
That’s why it’s best for your brain, and the rest of your body, to start by taking in the right amount of healthy fat first. Then you can adjust your carb and protein intake from there.
2 Wright J, Wang C. “Trends in Intake of Energy and Macronutrients in Adults From 1999-2000 Through 2007-2008.” NCHS Data Brief. November 2010; Number 49.
3 “Nutrition Facts.” Self Nutrition Data, nutritiondata.self.com. retreived Oct. 19, 2012.
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