Nowadays nutrition experts are urging us to include enough ‘healthy fats’ in our diet. Your brain needs fat to develop properly and function to it's full potential.

As dieticians and nutritionists the world over put all their efforts into changing the perception that fat is ‘bad’, a local nutrition expert has gone one step further and is urging parents to ensure that their children get enough healthy fats in their diet to help their brains develop.

It is important for parents to seriously consider the critical importance of certain dietary fats for the optimal development and functioning of the human brain, or face the consequences of children unable to develop to their full potential. Schoolchildren who were fed a diet containing certain essential fats actually showed improved cognition.

The importance of fat in the diet

During a conference hosted by the International Union of Nutritional Sciences, it was claimed that specific ‘special quality fats’ are essential to the developing brain, and need to be maintained in the diet. Dietary intake of these fats is not only important for babies and children, but remains important as we get older, as a deficiency can accelerate mental deterioration and neurodegenerative diseases.

For a long time it was thought that the brain reached maturity and stopped developing in early childhood. However, research findings have shown that the brain continues to develop and grow right through childhood and into puberty. This means that a healthy diet including healthy fats is vital to ensure the brain is allowed to develop to its full potential.

Some fat can indeed be good for you, contrary to popular belief and it is important to make people see that not all fats are bad.

That generalisation should not directly apply to all fats. There are also special quality fats that we need to obtain from our habitual diet, the so-called essential fats (or EFAs) which are essential, because the human body is incapable of producing them.

Getting to grips with the good fats

So what are essential fats and do we really need them?

EFAs come from two families of fats - the omega-3 and omega-6 families. The two families also need to live in harmony, because both their parents are essential.”

Yet while the body has the ability to produce some of the long-chain polyunsaturated fats by itself, this process is limited and this ability diminishes more and more as we age, which gives rise to the need to complement them through our daily diet, especially during infancy and ageing.

Where to find good fats

Good dietary sources of omega 3 fats include fatty fish such as sardines, chia seeds, salmon, herring and mackerel, as well as flax seed oil, canola oil, soybean oil and nuts, particularly walnuts. Omega-3 fats can also be found abundantly in supplements such as calamari oil, krill oil and fish oil.

Omega 6 fatty acids can be found in vegetable oils such as sunflower oil, soybean oil, olive oil, corn oil and sesame oil, as well as some margarines containing a healthy blend of one or more of these oils.

Therefore, if we provide our body with these fats through a healthy diet, the body can convert the essential fats into longer-chain polyunsaturated fats (PUFAs) or other hormone-like substances to “serve various important functions within the human body”.

This includes brain development and function, the stimulation of skin and hair growth, the maintenance of bone health, regulation of the metabolism, maintenance of reproductive capability, and also contributes towards the optimal functioning of the cardiovascular system and immune system.

Why the brain needs healthy fat

Essential fats are built into every cell membrane and ensure the fluidity of cell membranes, which are liquid-based rather than solid structures and it’s these fatty acids which are also the most abundant fats in brain tissue.

To maintain a healthy body that hosts a healthy brain, adults and children alike should follow a healthy eating pattern that includes enough EFAs from both the omega-3 and omega-6 families. Essential fats like these are crucial to a cell’s health and therefore to an individual’s overall mental and physical wellness.

Proof is in the pudding

Results show that when children  increase their intake of omega-3 EFAs from a fish source, their cognitive ability improves significantly and they not only find learning easier, but remember things more easily too.

Studies also reveal that children with an increased intake of omega-3s also have fewer days absent from school, mainly due to a decreased occurrence of respiratory-related illnesses.

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