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How a Low-Fat Diet Affects Your Brain

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The field of nutrition and food science is evolving so quickly that it can be hard to keep up. As more and more research is performed, many of the principles that we have taken for granted are being questioned and challenged. Case in point, the debates over the fat content in our diets and ideal caloric intake, are gaining increased attention recently.

Now, new research is indicating that a low-fat diet combined with limited caloric intake may protect aging brains, with benefits being potentially better than exercise.

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A Snapshot of Nutrition Science

For years, the public health messaging presented by the U.S. government has stood by the belief that caloric intake is the primary means of maintaining a healthy weight and body. Moreover, low fat foods have frequently been identified as the best solution, many times even to the point of ignoring the quality of these foods and their sugar content.

Only in recent years have these stances come under more scrutiny, as researchers are slowly performing more studies on the matter, which is important since rates of obesity and other chronic diseases continue to rise nationwide. Clearly, we still have a lot to learn, and that is why all new research into this vastly complicated science is worth a closer look.

The New Mouse Study on Brain Health

The new study in question, recently published in Frontiers in Molecular Neuroscience, examined the impact of diet and exercise on the brains of aging mice. The research focused on the microglia in the mice, which are brain cells that help to maintain the integrity and proper function of brain tissue. Dysfunction within these cells is linked to neurodevelopmental disorders, and similarly, aging has been associated with their inflammation, making them an ideal focal point for the study. Interestingly, the mice that were given a low-fat diet along with a limited caloric intake (a 40% reduction of calories) exhibited better microglia health than those mice on high-fat diets. Also of note, the study revealed that exercise was significantly less effective at preventing microglia inflammation as compared to caloric restriction.

In short, this study found that the fat content and caloric intake are important indicators for brain health, at least as far as mice are concerned. When both fat content and caloric intake were limited, changes in microglia were limited, suggesting a protective element. It is impossible to make conclusions for humans based off a single mouse study, but the researchers have uncovered an interesting association worth further investigation. Perhaps with further research, we will be able to make specific recommendations pursuant to brain health, but in the meantime, there are still measures we can take to protect ourselves and preserve our cognitive function as we age.

General Nutrition Recommendations and Brain Health

Unfortunately, we are still years, and perhaps even decades or generations, away from a more complete understanding of nutrition and the impact of diet upon one’s health and weight. Even so, there are a number of generalizations that are still applicable to everyone. I will reiterate a few of the points I made in a recent article, 3 Surprising Things That May Be Sabotaging Your Weight Loss Efforts, namely that consuming healthy whole foods is the best overall recommendation to follow.

While monitoring caloric intake, fat intake, sugar intake and other basic measures are all very important pieces in this puzzle, there is no exact formula that we can all apply. Building awareness and mindfulness around the foods we eat is a great starting point and may teach us strategies that work — for our own, specific bodies — over time. As you develop these skills and knowledge, focusing on preparing and eating healthy foods is the best solution, especially vegetables, whole grains and lean meats, and limiting refined carbs, highly processed foods, excess fats and foods high in added sugar.

Brain health is no less complicated, and we have a lot to learn about this matter too. However, there are also basic recommendations to follow and activities to pursue, as well as certain foods and brain boosting supplements to consider. There are also several different daily habits that can protect your brain health, and, as lifestyle changes are not all easy or simple to make, we can refine our progress over time and with perseverance.

As both general nutrition and brain health are concerned, our best bet is to follow general guidelines, develop and maintain mindfulness regarding our habits and foods, and use common sense. Even though there is much to be studied and understood in this field, this raw blueprint provides a basic approach to follow as we aim to maintain and preserve our physical and mental health.


Derek is a researcher, presenter and community liaison at the Behavioral Health & Wellness Program at the University of Colorado, specializing in promoting health systems change and combating health disparities. With his background as a technical writer and editor, he has over 15 years of experience working in the health care field. His experience includes serving as a contributing author on several textbooks in the medical field, running a nuclear cardiology licensing course, and writing a variety of other pieces ranging from online training courses to medical software manuals. Derek pursues his personal passion for health and wellness by playing multiple sports, hiking and running marathons, and travels extensively, having visited or lived in over 60 countries.


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