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Smart fats for growing brains


Fats can also influence brain development and performance, especially at either end of life -- growing infants and elderly people. In fact, there are two windows of time in which the brain is especially sensitive to nutrition: the first two years of life for a growing baby and the last couple decades of life for a senior citizen. Both growing and aging brains need nutritious fats.

The most rapid brain growth occurs during the first year of life, with the infant's brain tripling in size by the first birthday. During this stage of rapid central nervous system growth, the brain uses sixty percent of the total energy consumed by the infant. Fats are a major component of the brain cell membrane and the myelin sheath around each nerve. So, it makes sense that getting enough fat, and the right kinds of fat, can greatly affect brain development and performance. In fact, during the first year, around fifty percent of an infant's daily calories come from fat. Mother Nature knows how important fat is for babies; fifty percent of the calories in mother's milk is fat.

Different species provide different types of fat in their milk, fine-tuned to the needs of that particular animal. For example, mother cows provide milk that is high in saturated fats and low in brain-building fats, such as DHA. This helps their calves grow rapidly, though it may not do much for their brains. In adult cows, the brain is small compared with the body. Cows don't have to do a lot of thinking to survive. In human infants, the brain grows faster than the body. Highly developed brains are important to human beings, so human milk is low in body- building saturated fats and rich in brain-building fats, such as the fatty acid DHA (docosahexaenoic acid), an omega 3 fatty acid.

DHA is the primary structural component of brain tissue, so it stands to reason that a deficiency of DHA in the diet could translate into a deficiency in brain function. In fact, research is increasingly recognizing the possibility that DHA has a crucial influence on neurotransmitters in the brain, helping brain cells better communicate with each other. Asian cultures have long appreciated the brain-building effects of DHA. In Japan, DHA is considered such an important "health food" that it is used as a nutritional supplement to enrich some foods, and students frequently take DHA pills before examinations.

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