Your Brain on Food

How chemicals control your thoughts and feelings.

Avoiding Meat on Mondays

Health benefits with political costs

Your brain weighs about three pounds; most of that weight is water and fat. The composition of fats in your diet influences the composition of fats in your brain. Many years ago it was believed that brain fats were like furniture; they were the structures that supported the important things in the brain. Today, we appreciate that fats play an active role in mental functioning and that optimization of dietary fats can improve brain function and also attenuate the effects of mental disorders, such as depression or dementia. I have written about some of the benefits of specific fatty acids in previous blogs.

Some fats, especially the saturated fats found in meat, are detrimental to brain function (Diabetes, vol 61, July, 2012). This is why in my last blog I stated that you should avoid almost anything from a cow. Apparently, following this advice has negative political consequences. We’ve all seen the recommended dietary pyramids and optimal dinner plates publicized by the U.S. Department of Agriculture which recommends consuming meat and dairy products every day. However, following sound environmental and health reasoning the USDA headquarters staff was encouraged to consider not eating meat once per week. The program was named “meatless Monday” and was promoted as a simple and effective way to minimize the negative inpact of saturated fats on health and reduce, if only slightly, the environmental impact of greenhouse gases produced by 1.6 billion cows.

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The response by the National Cattleman’s Beef Association was, as almost anyone could have predicted, swift and tough calling the initiative an extremist campaign to end meat consumption.  Let’s be clear, meat is a dense source of essential nutrients, which is why producing meat extracts such a high cost from the environment. However, consuming meat increases the risk of cancer of the prostate, ovaries and colon as well as cardiovascular disease and dementia (British Medical Journal, vol 344, June, 2012). 

The response of the USDA was to quickly distance itself from both the underlying science that guided their decision and the Meatless Monday initiative. A better response would be to recommend that Americans strive for a balance of nutrients obtained from as many different sources as possible, particularly vegetables, fruits, beans and nuts (two excellent sources of protein) and avoid almost anything from a cow.

© Gary L. Wenk, Ph.D. Author of Your Brain on Food (Oxford University Press)

Gary L. Wenk, Ph.D., is a Professor of Psychology & Neuroscience & Molecular Virology, Immunology and Medical Genetics at the Ohio State University.

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