This Uber Low-Fat Diet Is Bad News for Your Brain

woman reading and thinkingI just finished reading a new book about brain health and had three overwhelming thoughts.

  1. I’m really glad this is a library book!
  2. The author has let his personal philosophy override science and common sense. 
  3. I need to inform my readers what is wrong with the information in this book.

The book is Power Foods for the Brain: an Effective 3-Step Plan to Protect Your Mind and Strengthen Your Memory by Dr. Neal D. Barnard. This best-selling author has been promoting this book heavily, so the chances of you hearing about it are very good. 

If you see him on a talk show or buy his book, I don’t want you to blindly follow his advice without knowing about my top concerns.

Can a Diet Be Too Low in Fat?

Dr. Barnard promotes an extremely low-fat vegan diet. A vegan diet is by definition very low in fat since this means no animal products of any kind including eggs, dairy, or butter. But he takes it a step further.

He doesn’t believe in adding any extra oil to foods, including olive oil. He states that if you want the benefits of olive oil, you should just eat a lot of olives! :-o

Here’s a typical day’s menu using his meal plan, recipes from his book, and the macronutrient content he provides.

daily menu chart

Less than 1,000 calories per day and 80% carbs would leave most of us starving.  

3% fat? This is insanely, even dangerously, low. The American Heart Association recommends 25-35% fat. (1) Some experts recommend getting 50% of calories from fat. (2, 3) The National Institutes of Health reported that increasing fat intake to 50% of calories improved the nutritional status of study participants, and didn’t negatively affect heart disease risk factors. (4)

Barnard claims that cholesterol levels usually plummet on this diet and I’m sure that’s true. But lower cholesterol isn’t necessarily better

Your Brain Needs Fat

Your brain is 60% fat, and needs fat in the diet to create brain cell membranes and hormones, and utilize fat soluble vitamins A, D, E, and K.

My biggest concern about a diet this low in fat is getting adequate essential fatty acids. Barnard says you can get all the omega-3s you need from foods like broccoli, but I’ve found no evidence to support that claim.

The most important omega-3 for the brain is DHA. Click on the image below to enter information about your diet into a DHA calculator. It will tell you very roughly how much you get from your diet. 

dha calculator

I plugged in the above vegan menu and according to this calculator, it contained NO DHA! (I’m sure it contains traces, but that’s not going to cut it.) 

3 Best Added Fats for Your Brain

While Barnard advises against any added fats, I strongly disagree! Here are three fats that provide fantastic nourishment for your brain:

The health benefits of olive oil are legendary. This monounsaturated fat is a major component of the Mediterranean diet, widely considered to be the all-around healthiest diet. A good quality extra virgin olive oil can boost the immune system, increase bone density, prevent cancer, strokes, and heart disease, lower blood pressure, reduce your risk of diabetes, and improve brain function. 

Saturated fat found in coconut oil is being studied as a possible Alzheimer’s treatment since its medium chain fats uniquely feed the brain.

Grass-fed butter is an excellent source of butyrate, a fatty acid that reduces chronic inflammation and counters neurodegenerative disorders like Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s.

Fat is essential for mental health. Since Barnard is a psychiatrist, I would hope he’s aware that:

“People who consume a diet low in fats and especially low in cholesterol are at risk for depression and suicide.”

The Low-Fat Fail

It’s now becoming accepted that low-fat diets haven’t worked at either preventing heart disease or for weight loss. Harvard has this to say about the “low-fat fail”: 

“Well it’s time to end the low-fat myth. The low-fat approach to eating hasn’t helped us control weight or become healthier. Why hasn’t cutting fat from the diet paid off as expected? Detailed research — much of it done at Harvard — shows that the total amount of fat in the diet isn’t really linked with weight or disease.” — Harvard School of Public Health

This graph below illustrates how the introduction of low-fat guidelines by the US government in the 1970’s has not helped us lose weight.

low fat guideline graph

graph courtesy of


tweet thisWhen good science goes bad: the uber low-fat “brain health” diet that could do more harm than good.

Forgot to Mention Sugar

sugarStrangely, for all the talk about diet, this book is weirdly silent on the topic of sugar. Sugar is mentioned only once and then not as a dietary culprit. I double-checked the index just in case I had a brain freeze and didn’t remember, but the index has sugar listed on page 181. That’s it. 

Barnard says this about cookies: “A cookie … does have some carbohydrates in the form of flour or sugar”. Some? Then he suggests that it’s the butter in the cookies that makes them unhealthy. Huh? 

I doubt he thinks sugar is healthy but it’s like he’s forgotten that most people eat 150 pounds of sugar a year. This is a glaring oversight!  

He recommends using agave nectar, but that contains even more fructose than white sugar. You can read what’s wrong with agave and added fructose in the diet here.

Copper, Iron, and Zinc — But Why? 

I’m puzzled at how hard he comes down on the metals iron, zinc, and copper, all minerals required for health, claiming there are links between overabundance of these minerals and Alzheimer’s. 

Anemia is very common in the elderly, effecting about a quarter of those over 65. The latest research has found that iron deficiency anemia increases your chance of developing dementia by 41%. (5

I find zinc overabundance surprising since 40% of the elderly are found to be deficient. (6) This is one reason older people lose their sense of taste and smell. 

Copper needs to be in proper balance. Copper deficiency is known to cause heart disease and has also been suspected as possibly causing Alzheiemer’s. (7) Other studies show that too much inorganic copper from supplements and plumbing, not dietary copper, might lead to Alzheimer’s. (8) Cutting out meat for its copper content doesn’t make sense unless you know you have a copper overload.

In an interview on the popular podcast program, The Livin’ La Vida Low-Carb Show, Dr. Barnard says that vegans have more iron in blood than meat eaters. So … if iron causes Alzheimer’s, shouldn’t he recommend we not eat a vegan diet?

podcastPodcast: Dr. Neal Barnard and the Uber Low-Fat Diet
Listen here.

dr. neal barnard podcast

One of the strangest things about this book is that he mentions only extremely toxic minerals like lead and mercury in passing, and is wishy-washy about aluminum which has been suspected of causing Alzheimer’s for years.  He says this about about aluminum in his book: “I suggest that you not feel a need to bet your brain one way or another”, then says it’s prudent to err on the side of caution.

Two egregious omissions are not mentioning the ubiquitous dietary excitoxins aspartame and MSG.

He recommends soy burgers over hamburgers, even though soy burgers are highly refined, often containing MSG. He lumps processed soy burgers in the same category as traditional foods like miso and tempeh, which is like lumping Bud Light with Dom Perignon. These foods are eaten in Asia as condiments and most of the health benefits come from the fermentation process. 

There is one thing Dr. Barnard and I agree on —  if you follow a vegetarian diet you absolutely must take a vitamin B12 supplement. If you aren’t convinced you need one, have a blood test done to know for sure. (See the link for Truth Health Labs at the bottom of the page to save money by ordering the test online.)

Having an Agenda Makes for Bad Science

We all have our reasons for eating the way we do. We either eat as we were raised or reject it as a “bad example” of how to eat and set out to do better. 

Dr. Barnard grew up in North Dakota in a family of cattle ranchers and physicians on what he calls a typical “midwestern” diet of beef, potatoes, corn, and peas. Several of his family members — grandparents and parents — had memory problems which he attributes, wrongly or rightly, to their diets. He became a vegan during college, not after he became a doctor. 

Judging from his book and the podcast, it would be fair to say Dr. Barnard promotes his philosophy about eating. It’s a problem when you bend the truth to prove your philosophy, then try to convince others that it’s science. :-x

What Is the Right Diet?

perfect health diet bookTired of hearing about the “diet de jour” and want to know what is the healthiest way to eat?

I recommend grabbing a copy of Perfect Health Diet by Paul and Shou-Ching Jaminet. Ah … now this is science! :-D

This double PhD couple were looking for answers to their own health problems that had not responded to modern medical treatment or a restrictive paleo diet. They spent five years researching the question “What should we eat?” 

This couple was in a unique position to tackle this tough question. Paul is an astrophysicist with a background in economics and Shou-Ching is a molecular biologist and cancer researcher.

Perfect Health Diet is based on scientific evidence from a variety of disciplines including nutrition, anthropology, ethnobotany and economics, and contains over 600 references to scientific literature. This book lays forth an eating plan meant to be followed for life. It doesn’t require you to count calories or measure your food, and you’ll be pleasantly surprised at how flexible and unrestrictive it is! While not specifically a weight loss diet, you can certainly lose weight on this diet, if that’s your goal. 

Read my full review here: Mom Was Right — Why “Meat & Potatoes” Diet May Be Best

Figuring out the “right” diet is one of the best steps you can take to improve your brain, your overall health, and longevity. Eat the wrong way and you will suffer the consequences. So before choosing a diet plan, do your homework, and choose wisely. 

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