There is no area of nutrition more confusing than that of dietary fats and oils. It turns out that the low-fat diets that have been promoted as healthy since the 1970s have been a disaster for our waistlines, our overall health and our brains. Our intake of polyunsaturated vegetable oils like canola oil has tripled in the last 50 years — about the same time Americans started getting fatter — and mental disorders of all kinds have skyrocketed. Is it a coincidence? Or is there a connection between brain health and dietary oils? The human brain is 60 percent fat so it’s not surprising that the type and quality oils consumed can make a big difference to brain health and function. Of all dietary oils, two have been found to be particularly protective of the brain.
Extra Virgin Olive Oil
Olive oil is a major component of the Mediterranean diet, which is widely considered the healthiest way to eat. People who traditionally eat this way are some of the healthiest and long-lived people on the planet. The ancient Greeks so revered olive oil that cutting down an olive tree was a crime punishable by death! Olive oil is perhaps best known for its heart health benefits, but it’s equally beneficial for the brain.
Olive oil is particularly high in potent antioxidants called polyphenols. Antioxidants are important for your brain, which uses a disproportionate amount of oxygen and generates a lot of free radicals. Olive oil also contains oleocanthal, another antioxidant and anti-inflammatory compound that clears the brain of the beta-amyloid plaques associated with Alzheimer’s. Following a Mediterranean diet high in olive oil can reduce the risk of Alzheimer’s by up to 40 percent. High intake of monounsaturated fats like olive oil is linked to better cognitive functions in seniors. Including olive oil can even make you happier by reducing your risk of depression.
Unfortunately, finding high-quality extra virgin olive oil (EVOO) is not as simple as it seems. Investigative journalist Tom Mueller rocked the olive oil industry in his expose, Extra Virginity: The Sublime and Scandalous World of Olive Oil. Independent tests done at the University of California Davis Olive Center found that 69 percent of all store-bought EVOO purchased in California did not meet extra virgin olive oil standards. Class action suits have been filed against Filippo Berio and Bertolli, two major Italian olive oil distributors, for olive oil fraud in October, 2014.
Before you pick up your next bottle of olive oil, I urge you to read these olive oil buying tips to learn which brands did and which brands did not meet EVOO standards, plus other ways to assure you are getting the “real deal.”
Few dietary fats have gotten a worse rap than coconut oil. Not very long ago coconut oil was vilified as an artery-clogging fat to be avoided at all costs. Now the pendulum has swung the other way and it can be found in any health food store. Coconut oil proponents claim it can do everything from reversing cavities to curing Alzheimer’s disease. Considering there is no good medical treatment for Alzheimer’s on the horizon, this may sound too good to be true. Let’s take a closer look at how coconut oil uniquely feeds the brain and what the scientific evidence shows about its potential for treating Alzheimer’s.
Most vegetable oils like soybean, safflower and canola oil are comprised of long-chain triglycerides. Medium-chain triglycerides (MCTs) are essential for human brain development and are found in abundance in breast milk. The only significant dietary source of MCTs is coconut oil. The brain normally is fueled by glucose, but medium-chain triglycerides provide an essential backup source of energy for your brain. Here’s why this is important and what it has to do with Alzheimer’s.
Brain cells can’t store energy. They need a constant supply that’s normally supplied in the form of blood glucose. When brain cells don’t get the energy they need, they soon start to die. Fortunately, when the brain can’t get enough fuel from carbohydrates the liver can break down stored body fat to produce ketones. Ketones readily cross the blood-brain barrier to provide instant energy to the brain.
One way of intentionally providing ketones to the brain is by eating a very high-fat, low-carbohydrate ketogenic diet. Ketogenic diets have been used successfully for treating epilepsy for decades. But you don’t have to starve or go on an extreme diet to fuel your brain with ketones. You can get the same results with coconut oil. Unlike glucose, which needs insulin to transport it into brain cells, ketones provide instant energy to brain cells — no insulin required. It’s this property that is key to understanding how coconut oil is beneficial for Alzheimer’s.
Alzheimer’s patients’ brains have become insulin-resistant. Their brain cells have lost the ability to uptake glucose and, subsequently, areas of the brain start to die. But coconut oil bypasses glucose metabolism, getting energy directly to the brain cells that need it. With the use of PET scans, it’s been observed that areas of the brain affected by Alzheimer’s utilize ketones as an alternative fuel source. Experts are now proposing that Alzheimer’s be considered a distinct type of diabetes. This diabetes of the brain is sometimes referred to as type 3 diabetes.
The idea that Alzheimer’s could be treated with coconut oil was popularized by one woman whose life was touched by this disease. Dr. Mary Newport’s husband Steve was diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimer’s when he was still in his 50s. As a neonatal physician, Dr. Newport was familiar with the use of supplemental MCTs for premature infants. She thought that MCTs could work to fuel her husband’s brain. Since there is no medical cure for Alzheimer’s, she felt they had little to lose.
Dr. Newport decided to add coconut oil to her husband’s food and give him supplemental MCT oil. Before starting him on this regimen, she had him take the Clock-Drawing Test. This is a simple standard tool used to diagnose dementia and Alzheimer’s. Patients are asked to draw a simple clock. Missing details like clock hands or numbers indicate a cognitive problem. On the left is Steve’s clock before starting the coconut oil regimen. The middle clock and clock on the right were drawn 14 days and 37 days after he had begun his oil supplementation. His progress is remarkable.
Steve’s condition improved significantly and steadily during the first year. His condition remained stable for the next two years. By year four, his condition became less stable in part due to a brain injury received from an unfortunate fall. But Dr. Newport has no doubt that coconut oil slowed the progression of his disease. She has amassed hundreds of testimonials and has been instrumental in getting studies on coconut oil and Alzheimer’s funded. She reports that coconut oil has proven successful in treating other neurological disorders including Parkinson’s, stroke, traumatic brain injury, Down syndrome, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, and Huntington’s.
To learn more, including how much coconut oil she recommends to use as a treatment, you can download a copy of her Coconut Oil Dietary Guidelines or pick up a copy of her book Alzheimer’s Disease: What If There Was a Cure?. In it she covers her husband’s progress and her own struggle getting the medical community to take notice of what she had discovered about coconut oil for treating adult neurological diseases.
There’s an impressive body of anecdotal evidence that coconut oil can stop, slow down, and even reverse mental decline. But is there scientific evidence to back it up? The National Institutes of Health’s database lists thousands of studies on coconut oil, MCT oil, and ketones. Here are some of the highlights of studies in this area.
Coconut oil has been found to reduce the beta-amyloid plaques associated with Alzheimer’s. Ketogenic diets and MCTs offer neuroprotective benefits for a wide range of neurological diseases, including all forms of dementia, Parkinson’s, stroke, and traumatic brain injury. Ketones increase mitochondrial efficiency and supplement the brain’s normal energy from glucose, presenting a promising new area of Alzheimer’s research.
High-fat diets that include coconut oil delay brain aging by providing extra fuel to repair brain cell damage. One of the most exciting studies found that adults with mild cognitive impairment (MCI), often a precursor of dementia, experienced significant improvement in memory recall after just one dose of MCT oil.
Take a Pass on Canola Oil
Canola oil is ubiquitous in “healthy” foods like salad dressings and health food snacks. But unfortunately, canola oil is not as healthy as we’ve been told. While canola is a monounsaturated fat like olive oil, that’s where the similarity ends.
Olive oil has been a traditional part of the human diet for thousands of years. On the other hand, there is no canola plant. Canola stands for “Canadian oil low acid” and comes from rapeseed. Approximately 90 percent of the world’s canola crop is genetically modified. Monsanto has been genetically modifying rapeseed for years to make it resistant to the herbicide Roundup.
Unlike olive oil, canola oil is not cold-pressed but extracted with high heat, pressure, and chemical solvents. This process leads to the formation of unhealthy trans fats. Canola oil, along with other vegetable oils like soy and safflower oil, are a main source of unhealthy omega-6 fatty acids which contribute to chronic inflammation.
They also upset our omega-3 to omega-6 ratio, which increases risk for virtually all diseases including psychiatric disorders. If you still aren’t convinced that canola oil is not a natural, healthy oil, watch this short video showing how canola oil is manufactured.
Making The Switch To Brain-Healthy Oils
Switching to brain-healthy oils isn’t hard. Since vegetable oils like canola readily turn into unhealthy trans fats when heated, switch to cooking with coconut oil. It is extremely heat-stable making it an excellent choice for frying, sautéing, roasting, and baking. But don’t use it on salads or in salad dressings — here I’d recommend extra virgin olive oil instead. Coconut oil turns solid at room temperature (76°F) so it immediately turns solid when it hits cool veggies.
You may have heard that you should not cook with olive oil. The evidence does not support this. Olive oil has a high smoke point (410ºF/210ºC), is stable when heated, and does not degrade even when heated for extremely long periods of time, making it very safe as a cooking oil. Another oil myth is busted!