We send our children to school with high hopes that they will develop the knowledge and skills necessaryto succeed in society. However, we seldom take the time to think about the organ that plays the biggest role in this process: the brain.
The brain starts off as an immature and disorganizedmass of cells that slowly matures through stimulus and experience. Nutrition plays a vital role in this development.
Consider the fact that 60 percent of the dry weight of the human brain is composed of fat. We usually think of fat as being the undesirable jiggly stuff around our midsections, but the reality is that our cell membranes – the surfaces of each cell in our bodies – are made up of fatty layers built from the fatty acids contained in our food.
But fat is even more important for certain kinds of cells, including the cells that make up our nerves, brains and the retinas of our eyes. These cells all transmit information, and to do so, they depend on the fast transmission of electrical impulses. In order for these impulses to work well, they require very specific types of fatty acids for their membranes.
The brain’s requirements are so specific that when we have a diet deficient in particular fatty acids we often see large changes in brain function. The brain is a complex cocktail of things like cholesterol, long-chain polyunsaturated fatty acids that you might find in fish oil or algae oil, and saturated fatty acids that are from our diet, but are also made by the body itself.
Like most parts of the body, the brain is always growing, repairingor replacing parts. But changes in the brain are most dramatic in growing children, as it refines its wiring to accommodate emotional and linguistic growth.
The membranes of children’s neurons ultimately reflect what is in their diets. Some fats benefit the function of brain cells, helping them cope with changes and possibly even help with mood management. The result is that you can contribute to brain health through nutrition and thus, over time, improve how the brain works.
We tend to talk a lot about DNA when we discuss how our bodies develop. DNA encodes many of the traits that make us who we are, but when it comes to brain development, nutritional foundation plays an important role. Fats and their incorporation into brain architecture influence how we perceive, sense, move, as well as how we recall, think, and associate our actions with an outcome. So when it comes to the brain, don’t fall into the trap of thinking all fats are bad.
But there’s a catch. Brain-building is not an excuse to dive into the fries. This is the wrong kind of fat for brain building and the right kind for waist-widening. Growing brains need a wide spectrum of high-quality oils that come from high-fat plant sources, such as nuts, seeds, olive oil and avocado; as well as animal sources, like eggs and cold-water fish.
A little of each goes a long way, but they all have a role to play. Just remember: When it comes to the brain, bigger is definitely better.
Got a question? Singaporean Olivia Lee (firstname.lastname@example.org) has an MSc in nutrition and provides nutrition counseling.