Day 6 – Good fats for mental health

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Day 6 of our 30-day nutrition challenge is to increase the amount of unsaturated fat in your diet. There’s a lot of scientific information about the benefits of unsaturated fats including:

  • Required for brain formation (babies and children)
  • Improved brain function (mental health, spectrum disorders)
  • Calming skin conditions
  • Improved cholesterol
  • Reduced joint pain

It’s essential that we include some fats in our diet as there are some fats the human body cannot make. Vitamins A, D E and K also require fat for absorption.

The key for most people is to reduce (but not remove) saturated fats, and increase unsaturated fats (specifically omega-3). Saturated fats are found in:

  • Red meat
  • Processed meat (sausages, pies)
  • Dairy (butter, cream, cheese, ice-cream)
  • Ghee, lard
  • Chocolate, cakes, biscuits, pastries

Coconut oil

A controversial one at the moment is coconut oil, we are still undecided if this should be encouraged or reduced in our diet. The confusion is that coconut oil is a saturated fat but in small research trials coconut oil has improved participants cholesterol. As we are yet undecided it’s probably safe to alternate it with extra virgin olive oil when an oil is required for cooking.


Humans make cholesterol and we also get it from certain foods. Guidance for many years has been to reduce the amount of dietary cholesterol to control the risk of heart disease and stroke. Guidance is also to increase the amount of High Density Lipoproteins (HDL) sources e.g. oily fish, and reduce the Low Density Lipoproteins (LDL) sources e.g. saturated fat. HDL and LDL transport the cholesterol around the body, and it’s healthier to have more HDL to transport cholesterol to the liver for repackaging and eliminating.

Mental health and memory

We’re encouraged to eat more unsaturated fats, these are monounsaturated (olive oil, rapeseed oil, avocado, nuts) and polyunsaturated (omega-3 and omega-6). To get a bit technical, the problem is the Western diet is high in omega-6 (rapeseed, corn, sunflower, nuts, as a result of processed food manufacturing) which reduces the likelihood that people can convert the omega-3 to a beneficial level (omega-6 and omega-3 compete for the same conversion channel and omega-6 generally wins). The vast amount of scientific information on unsaturated fats has been conducted on omega-3, and specifically the long-chain omega-3 (DHA and EPA) found in oily fish, rather than the short-chain omega-3 found in flaxseed and walnuts. You can find out more about this in Nutrition Challenge Day 25, in our Brain food webinar, and in our Bitesize Nutrition podcast where we sit down over various episodes with Dr Alex Richardson and talk about the role of fats in mental health, optimising mental performance, and spectrum disorders.

But needless to say there have been many scientific research trials on omega-3 and the benefits to mental health and memory. To improve your mental health and memory it’s suggested eating fish at least twice a week and at least one of these should be oily. Examples of oily fish:

  • Salmon
  • Sardines
  • Kippers
  • Mackerel
  • Sardines
  • Trout
  • Herring

If you’re not a fan of eating fish, a fish oil capsule should be considered – but caution choosing the brand. Avoid the cheapest brands as their filtration for heavy metals may not be as good as the medium priced brand supplement. If you are female and there is a possibility you may become pregnant also avoid cod liver oil supplements (cod liver is high in vitamin A which can be damaging to baby brain development). A general fish supplement is suggested.

Vegetarian / vegan sources of omega-3

There are some great algal oil supplements available from health food stores which are good sources of EPA and DHA.

Is low fat any good?

Generally, Nutritionists suggest avoiding low fat products – manufacturers know if they remove the fat a lot of the flavour disappears, to be replaced by additional sugar. Choosing a product with minimal processing would be preferable e.g. plain yogurt rather than low fat or fruit flavoured (Greek yogurt is an exception to this, they don’t appear to add sugar to the low fat versions). Another product which may be an exception is mayonnaise – the lighter version appears to have less rapeseed oil which is a good thing.  If choosing the non-low fat option remember everything in moderation….don’t go spreading toast with an inch of butter, or eating a large tub of yogurt in one day.

Further information about carbohydrates can be found in our Healthy heart and Brain food webinars.

Don’t forget to let us know what you think #nutritionchallenge30


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