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Boost Your Mood with Healthy Fats

Boost Your Mood with Healthy Fats

Food and Brain Health 

By Natalie Bickford, MS

Neurodegenerative diseases, like Alzheimer’s Disease and Dementia, continue to be on the rise and a lot of that is attributed to diet and lifestyle factors. It’s also the result of the low-fat craze in the 90’s that replaced all the good fats with lots of sugar. This coupled with other poor lifestyle and diet factors caused a dramatic increase in Type 2 Diabetes, which is heavily linked to Alzheimer’s Disease (sometimes now referred to as ‘Type 3 Diabetes’).

Thankfully research has shown that sugar is the real culprit of most inflammatory diseases and that fat is crucial for boosting brain health and reducing inflammation. Just like the rest of our body, our brain needs fuel to function optimally. Fortunately, our brains are pretty resilient and we get to decide the quality of the fuel that we feed it!

Eating a diverse diet full of vegetables, fruits, lots of healthy fats, quality protein and complex carbs will provide steady, nourishing fuel for your brain. Not only does good nutrition prevent neurodegenerative disease down the road, you’ll also feel more energized, focused and attentive in your day to day life. After all, running is 90% mental and the rest is physical!


Why Fat is your Brain’s Best Friend

Did you know that 60% of your brain is made up of fat? The outer protective layer of all of your neurons is called a ‘myelin sheath’ and is made up primarily of fat and cholesterol. Without this sheath, your neurons wouldn’t fire or function properly.

Omega-3 fats, a type of polyunsaturated fat, are especially important for brain health. Specifically, DHA and EPA are crucial for both the developing brain and the protection of the mature brain. They reduce inflammation throughout the body, but are thought to target inflammation in the brain. Since these fatty acids can’t be made in our body, we have to get them through our diet.

Favorite food sources:

  • Fatty fish (salmon, mackerel, sardines, tuna)
  • Walnuts
  • Chia seeds and flaxseeds
  • Seaweed

  • The brain is also largely composed of
    saturated fats, which are a fundamental building block for brain cells. This is why breast milk is made up of roughly 50% saturated fat - super important for a baby's developing brain. A Mayo Clinic study found that individuals consuming the most saturated fat experienced a 36% reduction in risk for developing dementia. This doesn’t mean you should go eat a stick of butter or have beef with every meal. Instead, focus on eating good quality fats in moderation.

    Favorite food sources:

  • Grass-fed or organic butter
  • Virgin coconut oil
  • Grass-fed beef
  • Egg yolks

  • While fat is super important for brain health and inflammation, there are other nutrients that play an important role as well...

    Other Nutrients Important for your Brain

    Vitamin E

    Vitamin E is a powerful antioxidant that fights off free radicals in the body. Fats are extremely susceptible to free radical damage. Since our brain is 60% fat, it’s important to have vitamin E on board for protection. People with Alzheimer’s Disease often have lower levels of vitamin E in their cerebrospinal fluid.

    Favorite food sources:

  • Almonds
  • Extra-virgin olive oil
  • Avocado
  • Fatty fish 
  • Broccoli

  • Choline

    Choline, a lesser known or talked about nutrient, speeds up the production of acetylcholine, a protein that’s important for memory and mood. Studies have shown that people with a high intake of choline have better memory function and healthier brain tissue.

    Favorite food sources:

    • Egg yolks
    • Grass-fed beef
    • Fatty fish
    • Broccoli

    Check out our recipe for Quinoa Veggie Egg Cups for a healthy brain-boosting breakfast or snack.


    Cholesterol is a precursor for vitamin D and sex hormone production, which are all crucial for brain health. In fact, 25% of your bodies cholesterol is found in the brainOne study showed that higher levels of cholesterol in elderly people was associated with better memory function.

    Favorite food sources:

    • Egg yolks
    • Full-fat dairy (whole milk yogurt, aged cheeses, butter)
    • Grass-fed beef
    • Sardines

    B vitamins

    B vitamins are found in the protective layer of your nerve cells. They’re also important for red blood cell production and the transportation of oxygen to the brain.

    Favorite food sources:

    • Broccoli
    • Kale + spinach
    • Whole grains (brown rice, farro, spelt…)
    • Egg yolks
    • Full-fat dairy

    Our Favorite Brain-Boosting Recipes

    Eating a well-balanced, diverse diet rich in healthy fats is your best bet for maintaining a stable blood sugar level and reducing inflammation in your brain.

    Below is a  a list of some of our favorite recipes that are full of healthy fats and brain-boosting nutrients. 

    All recipes are available in Run Fast. Cook Fast. Eat Slow.

    Steadfast Egg Scramble (p. 76)
    Spinach and Sausage Frittata (p. 79)
    Tuna White Bean Salad (p. 92)
    Curry Egg Salad (p. 93)
    Pesto Tuna Melt (p. 107)
    Slow Cooker Beef and Lentil Minestrone (p. 115)
    Power Bowls (p.122)
    Pesto Pasta with Sardines (p. 148)
    Homestyle Mac n’ Cheese with Broccoli (p. 151)
    Miso Butter Salmon (p. 155)
    Coconut Rice with Nori (p. 164)
    Miso Fast Greens (p. 167)
    Garlicky Guac (p. 177)
    Turmeric Coconut Curry Sauce (p. 181)
    Strawberry Rhubarb Chia Parfait (p. 217)


    We think brain health is a pretty good reason to start a cooking habit! Check out our top tips on how to find time to cook and read up on Shalane's 10 favorite recipes. Pickup a copy of Run Fast. Cook Fast. Eat Slow. for less than the cost of one takeout meal. 

    Natalie is a nutritionist and personal chef in Portland, OR who specializes in women's health and sports nutrition. She loves creating simple, nourishing meals and recipes to fuel your life. Find Natalie at nataliecooks.com. 

    Photos by Elyse Kopecky.

    Follow @elysekopecky

    Follow @ShalaneFlanagan