Saturated fats vs. omega-3s: Could DHA help protect the brain?

Evan Walker
Evan Walker TheMediTary.Com |
Slices of bread, butter, and a knife on a chopping board.Share on Pinterest
Consuming too much saturated fat may contribute to memory deficits, research suggests. Helen Rushbrook/Stocksy
  • While fat is an essential component of diet, consuming too much saturated fat can contribute to various Health problems.
  • Previous research has indicated that high fat diets may contribute to memory deficits.
  • A recent study examined how the saturated fat palmitate influences certain brain cells and the protective factors of the omega-3 fatty acid docosahexaenoic acid.
  • Results indicate that docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) may help to mitigate some of the brain cell damage associated with a high fat diet.

What we eat can impact all areas of life, and research continues to discover the effects certain foods have on the brain, including at the cellular level. One specific food being examined is saturated fats.

A recent study looked at some of the underlying mechanisms behind how saturated fats may be involved in damaging specific brain cells.

The researchers further demonstrated that the omega-3 fatty acid docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) can mitigate some of this damage caused by saturated fats.

The results demonstrate the impact of diet on brain health and the potential benefits of limiting saturated fat consumption and finding ways to increase intake of omega-3 fatty acids.

The findings were published in Frontiers In Cellular Neuroscience.

Saturated fat often comes from animal-based foods. Many groups and government agencies emphasize how too much saturated fat can increase the risk of heart problems. However, as this research indicates, saturated fat also influences brain health.

In contrast to the negative impact of saturated fat, omega-3 fatty acids are often found in fish and plant sources, such as plant oils, nuts, salmon, and tuna. These are related to several health benefits, including decreased cardiovascular disease risk and possibly improved cognitive function.

This particular study built on previous data about the influence of fat on brain function.

First, the researchers noted that diets high in saturated fat may contribute to neuroinflammation and poor cognitive function. They may also contribute to impairments in long-term memory, based on data from studies on aged rats. Previous research also indicated that polyunsaturated fatty acids may help improve neuroinflammation.

The researchers of this study wanted to look deeper into the underlying mechanisms of this previous research. They used mice and cell cultures to collect their data. They examined the impact of palmitate, a common saturated fat, and the protective factors of the omega-3 fatty acid, docosahexaenoic acid (DHA).

They looked at the relationship between palmitate and docosahexaenoic acid in two specific types of brain cells: BV2 microglia and HippoE-14 neurons.

Higher fat, higher brain damage

From their work with aged mice, the researchers found higher brain damage among mice that were on a high fat diet. This suggests that high fat diets alter the brain and encourage brain degradation.

Their cell analysis found that DHA may help mitigate some of the harmful effects of palmitate, including reducing inflammation.

Beata Rydyger, a holistic nutritionist based in Los Angeles, California, and nutritional contributor to HPVHUB, who was not involved in the study, helped break down some of the research to Medical News Today:

“The study focused on microglia, brain cells which promote inflammation, and hippocampal neurons— these are important for memory and learning. The study showed that palmitic acid increased inflammation in both microglia and neurons, which could have negative effects on memory or cognition.”

“Importantly, pre-treatment with DHA was shown to prevent or lessen the effects of palmitate, suggesting that consuming DHA could protect the brain from the effects of an unhealthy diet high in saturated fats by curbing fat-induced inflammation.”
— Beata Rydyger, nutritionist

This study does have limitations. The main limitation is that the research utilized mice and examined specific cells. This indicates the need for greater research and further replication of the findings.

Further research is also needed to understand more of the cellular nuances and the distinct influence of palmitate or DHA on cell components like the mitochondria. It can further examine any causal relationships involved. Researchers were also limited in how much protein they could collect from mice.

Future research can also examine how these findings relate to clinical practice and how people can mitigate certain brain changes.

Sarah Wagner, a clinical registered dietitian at Memorial Hermann, who was also not involved in the study, told MNT that such studies laid the foundation for further research “from which we can continue to learn and investigate.”

“Population research shows people whose diet patterns have more sources of omega-3 fatty acids are generally healthier than those with more saturated fats. This cellular study helps identify specific processes that benefit from omega-3s.”
— Sarah Wagner, registered dietitian

She also cautioned against overestimating the findings.

“It’s important to remember that humans don’t live in a bubble or a lab, though. Human nutrition is a lot more nuanced because we each make choices about what we eat every day based on a wide variety of factors,” she said.

While further research is needed in this area, the data indicates some of the dangers of consuming too much saturated fat and the potential protection of omega-3 fatty acids. People can seek out help from their doctors or nutrition specialists to see how they can consume less saturated fat and more omega-3 fatty acids in their daily lives.

Rydyger noted that people can increase their intake of DHA through a variety of animal and plant sources.

“DHA can be found in fatty fish like salmon, mackerel, and sardines and also fish oil supplements. For vegans or vegetarians, DHA can be found in certain algae supplements.”
— Beata Rydyger, nutritionist

When it comes to incorporating more healthy fats such as omega-3 fatty acids into one’s diet, swapping items may be a good place to start.

“It helps to view nutrition as more of a spectrum than black-and-white. When it comes to fats, I counsel my patients on making choices to shift toward more unsaturated fats, more omega-3s, and less saturated fat sources. You can do this in a lot of ways,” said Wagner.

How to limit saturated fat

“Replace red meat with a fatty fish like salmon. Opt for a meatless meal at least once a week. Replace deli meats with tuna. Cook with canola oil instead of butter, coconut oil, or grease. Instead of 80/20 ground beef, choose leaner 93/7 ground beef or turkey. Skip the cheese on salads or sandwiches. You can even buy eggs that are enriched with omega-3s. Adding ground flax seeds, chia seeds, and/or walnuts to your morning bowl of oatmeal, yogurt, or smoothies is a great way to pack in omega-3s. You can also add flax meal and/or walnuts to things like baked goods or salads.”
— Sarah Wagner, registered dietitian

TAGGED: , , ,
Share this Article