Coconut oil, olive oil, grape seed oil: which is best for brain health?

As a neuropsychologist, patients regularly ask me if the foods they eat can support brain health. One of the most frequent things they want to know is if different cooking oils can improve brain health and prevent cognitive decline.

Research in this area is still evolving, but certain oils do have properties that can support good brain function. Using the right oils can also contribute to good cardiovascular health, and the relationship between a healthy heart and a healthy brain is well documented, but often overlooked. Health problems like hypertension and high cholesterol are closely associated with an increased risk of dementia, so using some oils (and avoiding others) will benefit both your body and your mind.

When it comes to cooking oils, here’s what everyone concerned about brain health should know:

Olive oil

Olive oil is the most well known cooking oil associated with both brain and heart health. One of the reasons for this is that plant-based oils like olive oil are high in polyunsaturated or monounsaturated fatty acids, which have been associated with decreased risk of cognitive decline. If you are incorporating olive oil into your diet, there are a couple of points to keep in mind. First, like all oils, olive oil is high in calories, so consider the amount of oil you consume in the context of the number of calories you eat and drink overall. Second, the benefits of olive oil are reduced when heated, which is a good reason to enjoy it on salad. If you’re following the MIND Diet, olive oil is the oil we recommend you reach for, whether you’re cooking chicken, making a dressing, or dipping bread.

Nut oils

In addition to plant oils, nut oils such as walnut oil or peanut oil have associated health benefits. Both of these oils are high in unsaturated fat, which has been shown to lower bad cholesterol. They also both contain vitamin E, which has been reported to have a protective effect against cognitive decline. Peanut oil also contains omega 6 fatty acids and plant sterols, which may reduce the risk of heart disease. Walnut oil contains omega 3 fatty acids, which have been shown to help lower beta amyloid levels in the blood and may help to prevent cognitive decline in older adults. The combination of unsaturated fat, vitamin E and plant sterols makes nut oils another brain healthy addition to the pantry.

Grape seed oil

While relatively less known than nut oils and olive oil, grape seed oil has also garnered interest for its health properties. It contains natural antioxidants called polyphenols which may help prevent Alzheimer’s disease. In a study of mice, the polyphenols prevented the formation of a beta protein closely associated with cognitive decline. No studies have yet been done to show the effects in humans, but this early research is promising.

Coconut oil

One of the more recently popularized alternative treatments for Alzheimer’s disease is the consumption of coconut oil. Multiple viral YouTube videos have provided anecdotal evidence for its efficacy. The purported health benefits come from the medium chain fatty acids found in coconut oil. The body breaks down these fatty acids into substances called ‘ketone bodies’, which are thought to provide an alternative source of energy than glucose for brain cells. But despite its advocates, researchers have not reported scientific evidence substantiating the health benefits associated with coconut oil consumption, and the Alzheimer’s Association has expressed concerns about coconut oil as a legitimate treatment.

Oils to avoid

In addition to oils that have been shown to promote brain health, some oils should best be left on the shelf. Vegetable oils in particular (e.g. soybean, canola, palm and corn oil), while cheap, may end up being more costly to your cognition in the long run. Most vegetable oils are high in saturated fats and chemically processed, which may contribute to their high advanced glycation end products (AGEs), sometimes known as glycotoxins, which contribute to oxidant stress and inflammation. In fact, a recent study found that diets with less AGE content, including vegetable oils, were associated with reduced incidence of Alzheimer’s disease.

 

Nick Bott, Psy.D.
Nick Bott, Psy.D.

Neuropsychology Fellow, Stanford School of Medicine — For over a decade, neuropsychologist, Nick Bott, has been researching age-related cognitive decline and prevention strategies. He wants to reshape the accessibility and affordability of cognitive healthcare.