Brain Science

This “Forbidden” Food Can Save Your Memory

This “Forbidden” Food Can Save Your Memory about undefined

Saturated fat has been a big “no no” for heart health nuts for many decades now. Instead, you’ve been encouraged to stomach “low-fat” or “no fat” foods in the name of artery health. But is forgoing saturated fat really good for you?

There’s been a dramatic shift in thinking among scientists as many no longer point to saturated fats as the culprit behind heart disease -- something we’ve been pressing home for years.

This news begs another question…

Since what’s “bad” for the heart is also considered “bad” for the brain, is saturated fat being wrongly implicated as a cause of cognitive impairment, too?

The latest research suggests your memory has nothing to fear from fat. Here’s the story…

U.S. dietary guidelines advise limiting consumption of saturated fats to no more than ten percent of total calories and to replace them with polyunsaturated fats. But scientists from the University of Texas, UC San Francisco, UC Berkeley, Tufts, and colleagues from Canada and Europe are highly critical of this recommendation.

Saturated fat’s link to heart disease not supported

In 2021 they wrote that this advice – which hasn’t changed since 1990 - wasn’t supported by rigorous scientific studies and that important papers that don’t support this view are excluded from consideration by the medical authorities tasked with establishing guidelines for the public to follow. They point to multiple systematic reviews that find no association between saturated fats and cardiovascular disease.

The link between saturated fat and cognitive decline was announced more recently, but here too it’s being questioned by scientists at the Queensland Brain Institute (QBI) in Australia. Their work shows that saturated fats, far from being harmful, are key players in forming memories.

Saturated Fats Increase As Memories Are Formed

Traditionally, polyunsaturated fatty acids are considered beneficial for learning and memory, but in their study published in 2021, the Australian scientists found, much to their surprise, that saturated fatty acid levels increase in the brains of rats when memories are formed. However, when a drug is used to block learning and memory formation, saturated fat levels don’t change.

First author Tristan Wallis explained, saying, “We tested the most common fatty acids to see how their levels changed as new memories were formed in the brain. Unexpectedly, the changes of saturated fat levels in the brain cells were the most marked, especially that of myristic acid, which is found in coconut oil and butter.

“Fatty acids are the building blocks of lipids or fats and are vital for communication between nerve cells because they help synaptic vesicles — microscopic sacs containing neurotransmitters — to fuse with the cell membrane and pass messages between the cells.”

He and his colleagues found the amygdala — the part of the brain involved in forming new memories specifically related to fear and strong emotions — contained the highest concentration of saturated fats.

One of the research team, Pankaj Sah, added that the team’s work opens a new avenue on how memory is formed. “This research has huge implications on our understanding of synaptic plasticity — the change that occurs at the junctions between neurons that allow them to communicate, learn and build memories.”

Having discovered that saturated fats increase in memory formation, their next task was to find out the mechanism by which this occurs.

PLA1 and STXBP1 - Two Key Proteins

They discovered an enzyme called Phospholipase A1 (PLA1) interacts with another protein at the synapse called STXBP1 to form saturated fatty acids. STXBP1 controls the targeting of PLA1, coordinating the release of fatty acids and directing communication at the synapses in the brain. Mutations in the PLA1 and the STXBP1 genes are known to reduce free fatty acid levels and promote neurological disorders in humans.

Professor Frederic Meunier, who runs the QBI, explains how they made their discovery. “To determine the importance of free fatty acids in memory formation, we used mouse models where the PLA1 gene is removed. We tracked the onset and progression of neurological and cognitive decline throughout their lives. We saw that even before their memories became impaired, their saturated free fatty acid levels were significantly lower than control mice. This indicates that this PLA1 enzyme, and the fatty acids it releases, play a key role in memory acquisition.

“Our findings indicate that manipulating this memory acquisition pathway has exciting potential as a treatment for neurodegenerative diseases, such as Alzheimer’s.”

The QBI isn’t the only lab interested in the connection between saturated fats and brain health; so are major medical institutions in the US.

No Need to Avoid Beef and Dairy

A study led by Danni Li at the University of Minnesota, together with colleagues at Harvard, Johns Hopkins, the Mayo Clinic, and others, followed 3,229 participants for 20 years. They found that very long chain fatty acids, found in beef, dairy products and nuts, slow cognitive decline. (Keep in mind that organic options are always the best.)

This is what Dr. Li had to say: “Usually, people think that saturated fatty acids are bad for your health, that’s why people avoid fats and have concerns about saturated fatty acids. But our study actually shows that those very long-chain saturated fatty acids are good for cognitive function.”

Short and Medium Chain Fats Are Healthy Too!

The body can make all the saturated fats it needs from the carbohydrates we eat if we don’t consume them directly. The body uses saturated fats as building blocks for cell membranes, as a source of energy, to speed nerve impulses and more.

Fats are especially important for the brain. In fact, the brain is the fattiest organ in the body, being 60 percent fat.

There are different types of saturated fat according to the length of its carbon chain and each type has different functions. The above study pointed to the benefits of very long chains.

A recent study of 883 Italians over the age of 50 showed other lengths are also beneficial. Individuals with a higher intake of short-chain fatty acids found in foods produced by bacterial fermentation, such as yogurt, cheese and butter, and medium chain fatty acids, especially lauric acid, found in coconut oil, were less likely to have cognitive impairment. They also found higher total saturated fats in the diet were linked to less cognitive decline.

Our Takeaway

So, to sum up, while saturated fats have always been considered detrimental to cardiovascular and cognitive health, this view is being strongly challenged, although it may take some years before it’s reflected in official guidelines. All we can say is, at long last! If you like high fat natural foods, go ahead and enjoy them in moderation, as part of a healthy, nutrient rich diet.

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