Fantastic Fats And ominous oils

My recollections from childhood in the late eighties and nineties have a few standout milestones: singing the lyrics to the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles theme song on repeat (turtle power!), my first Ghostbusters Halloween outfit, and waking up at an ungodly hour on Saturday mornings to watch one of the first great serials of the modern television renaissance

My memory of my family’s dietary pattern is a little less vivid. Meals in my house were often prepared by my mom, who was as health-conscious as any busy woman with three little boys (and a fourth, if you count my dad) could be. She watched the Nightly News, read the New York Times and various magazines, and was generally hip to the mainstream health advice of the time.


To what degree can food be manipulated before we can no longer call it food? For many years, products that didn’t adhere to the strict definitions of basic foods had to be labeled as “imitation.” But a label bearing the i-word spelled marketing doom for products, so the food industry lobbied to have this imposition deregulated. In 1973 they got what they wanted.

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The Double-Edged Sword

Polyunsaturated fats are a type of dietary fat that’s ubiquitous in our brains and bodies. The most well-known polyunsaturated fats are the omega-3 and omega-6 fats, which are considered essential because our bodies need them, and we can’t produce them on our own. We, therefore, have to get these fats from food.

Night of the Lipid Dead

As coveted as polyunsaturated fats are by the brain, they are delicate and highly vulnerable to a process called oxidation. Oxidation occurs when oxygen (you may have heard of it) reacts chemically with certain molecules to create a new, damaged zombie molecule that has a superlative extra electron, called a free radical. How reactive is “super-reactive”? Let’s just say these radicals make the White Walkers from Game of Thrones look like a caravan of pacifist hippies.

A Brain on Fire

We tend to think of our brains as unaffected by the goings-on in the rest of our bodies, but the problems associated with inflammation don’t stay below the neck. Perhaps we don’t think much about inflammation in the brain because it’s invisible—it’s not something we can feel with unmistakable certainty, as we can paint in an arthritic knee or an upset stomach, for example.

Sane in the Membrane

Whether you’re going over a presentation, doing your taxes, or deciding what to watch on Netflix, your thoughts are the end result of countless chemical (and electrical) reactions that occur across the quadrillion connections that neurons make with one another in your brain. And the success of these processes may come down to one vital, unsung hero of our cognitive function: the cell membrane.

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