Healthy Fats: Fish, meat, and dairy for brain health

Healthy Fats: Fish, meat, and dairy for brain health

Olive oil, nuts, and seeds are key sources of healthy fat in the Mediterranean eating pattern, but there’s one more staple to talk about—fatty fish.

We recommend aiming for two or more 3-ounce servings a week of fatty fish such as salmon or mackerel. (For reference, a 3-ounce serving is about the size of a deck of cards.)

In addition to seafood, other meats and animal products can also provide healthy fats, though we have different recommendations for red meat and dairy—4 or less servings of red meat per week and 2 servings per day of dairy.

These food groups are also a part of a healthy Mediterannean pattern, though not all products are made the same. Read on to learn about the benefits of fatty fish and other meats on brain health, and to get some of our best advice on choosing quality products for optimal nutrition!

Fatty Fish

Fatty fish are full of polyunsaturated fats, namely omega-3 fatty acids, which are known to have anti-inflammatory properties, help raise HDL cholesterol, and lower blood pressure¹. Though both omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids are important for health, the typical Western diet is known for being excessive in omega-6’s².

Nuts and seeds are a great source of omega-6’s, but so are many processed foods such as those made with vegetable oils². To help keep omega-3’s and omega-6’s in balance, aim to get your dose of omega-6’s through whole foods.

Fatty fish are particularly important sources of omega 3’s, because they contain two types called EPA and DHA. DHA, specifically, can play an important role in determining the effect of aging on cognition³.

Some studies suggest that DHA helps increase the brain’s use of glucose (sugar)—which is important for cognition, because the brain’s ability to use glucose for energy may be reduced in those with cognitive decline.

These findings have been reflected in other research trials. In one study, participants who consumed baked or broiled fish up to 4 times a week had higher scores in a modified mini-mental state test, compared to a control group.

In another study, just one serving a week of fatty fish was associated with lower risk for dementia³

DHA is a powerful neuroprotector, and has been found to help create BDNF (brain-derived neurotrophic factor), an essential compound for the formation of new brain cells². BDNF may also help the long-term maintenance of the function and plasticity of brain cells. 

Several studies have established a link between low DHA levels and decreased serotonin in the brain. This suggests that high consumption of omega-3’s are not only important for the brain and cognition, but for helping reduce the risk of depression as well.

The DHA and EPA found in fatty fish is especially beneficial because it can be used more efficiently in the body than the omega-3’s found in plants²

What types of fish are considered “fatty?”

According to the Seafood Nutrition Partnership, fatty fish are at least 5% fat and usually have a firmer texture, richer flavor, and deeper color than other seafood. Fatty fish can be broiled, grilled, poached, or baked!

Some fatty fish high in omega-3’s include pink, sockeye, or chum salmon, white or Albacore tuna, crab, and Alaskan pollock.

Even higher in omega-3’s are Atlantic salmon, mackerel, trout, and black cod.

For delicious seafood recipes and other fish resources, check out the Seafood Nutrition Partnership website here. They’ve got dishes for every seafood type, meal, and cooking method!

As for concerns about fish and mercury levels, data from The Seafood Nutrition Partnership states that up to 90 percent of the seafood consumed in the U.S. is low in mercury. Fish that tend to have higher mercury levels are big, predator fish such as shark or swordfish. For more details on mercury levels in your favorite fish, the FDA has a comprehensive list.

Pregnant and breastfeeding women should take extra caution when choosing fish, though 2 to 3 serving per week of low-mercury fish is still recommended. Examples include shrimp, salmon, and tilapia.

Healthy fats from other meat sources

According to recent surveys, although seafood is one of the major sources of omega-3’s red meat also serves as a significant source of nutrients for many Americans

Like seafood though, not all red meat is created equal. Research shows that grass-fed beef may have more omega-3 fatty acids and antioxidant content than grain-fed beef

What is the difference between grass-fed beef and grain-fed beef?

Grass-fed beef that is certified through the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the Agricultural Marketing Service (AMS) guarantees the beef was fed grass and forage. These animals need continuous access to pasture and cannot be fed grain or any grain by-products. In times of little pasture growth, animals can be fed hay, alfalfa, and silage

By having the USDA and AMS stamp, grass-fed beef only guarantees this particular care, not necessarily a particular nutrient make-up.

Nonetheless, numerous studies have suggested that grass-fed beef has several benefits of grain-fed beef.

One study found that cattle fed primarily grass had a higher content of omega-3’s and a more favorable ratio of omega-6’s to omega-3’s when compared to grain-fed livestock. In fact, grass-fed beef may have up to 5 times more omega-3’s than grain-fed beef.

The total fat will depend on the cut, location, and genetic traits of the animal, however—which is why we recommend choosing lean meat that’s 10 percent fat or less.

What antioxidants can we get from grass-fed beef?

Grass-fed cattle will retain some of the carotenoid content from the plants they eat. Carotenoids are important for vision, bone growth, and the immune system, in addition to helping create vitamin A. This phytonutrient content will present itself in the fat of grass-fed beef, which will have a yellowish color.

Grass-fed beef also contains up to three times more vitamin E than grain-fed beef. This is another brain-healthy nutrient that’s also powerful at helping reduce oxidative stress

In addition to grass-fed meat containing more nutritive compounds, products from these animals will also contain more omega-3’s, EPA, DPA, and antioxidants². Check the label on meat and dairy for more information.

Does grass-fed beef taste different from grain-fed?

Some survey responders claim that grass-fed beef has a more earthy taste. Ultimately, acceptability of grass-fed beef depends on the individual and on the culture. While U.S. consumers tend to prefer grain-fed beef, other countries choose grass-fed for its taste.

Grass-fed beef does have unique cooking qualities, though. High-heat cooking methods can destroy its antioxidant compounds—aim for slower cooking methods, such as stewing or braising

Grass-fed beef also cooks faster than grain-fed beef, so be sure to check the temperature often while cooking and check for doneness. Check out these helpful tips from the American Grassfed Association for more information on preparing and cooking grass-fed beef.

Click here for some recipes from their site as well, they’ve got dishes with grass-fed beef, pork, bison, and more! 

Healthy fats from dairy products

Just as grass-fed animals result in more nutritious meat, they also result in more nutritious milk.

Research shows that grass-fed milk contains more omega-3 fatty acid than conventional milk, as well as a more favorable ratio of omega-6’s to omega-3’s¹⁰.

Grass-fed milk also contains trace amounts of EPA and DHA, the essential fatty acid compounds we discussed being present in fatty fish¹⁰.

Eggs are another great source of healthy fats and nutrients that can vary based on what the hens were fed. Egg yolks are uniquely high in a nutrient called choline, which is important for brain and nervous system health and can be hard to find in other foods. 

One study found that egg yolks from pasture-raised (or pastured) eggs contain more E and anti-inflammatory omega-3 fats than commercial eggs, in addition to containing vitamin E and other antioxidants¹¹.

What does it mean for an egg to be pastured?

Pastured refers to the way the hen was raised—allowed to roam in fields and peck at forage and insects¹².

Unfortunately, the terms used to describe different types of eggs can be somewhat misleading—cage-free, organic, and free-range eggs aren’t guaranteed to have access to open pastures. 

If you’re concerned about the living conditions of the chickens and want a little nutrient boost, buy pastured eggs from a local farmer you trust, or do your homework on your local grocery store egg options—most reputable brands have websites with production details. 

Regardless, eggs are full of nutrients and are a great addition to a healthy diet. To find local farmers offering grass-fed beef, grass-fed dairy, and pastured eggs in your area, check out

Regardless of your preferences when it comes to eating fish, red meats, and other animal products, they can each be part of a healthy diet for brain health. Choose wisely, as production methods can greatly affect the nutrient content. We hope this post helped encourage you to become a more informed consumer!


  1. Van Gelder, B.M., Tijhuis, M., Kalmijn, S., & Kromhout, D. Fish consumption, n-3 fatty acids, and subsequent 5-y cognitive decline in elderly men: The Zutphen elderly study. (2007). The American journal of clinical nutrition, 85(4), pp. 1142-1147. Doi: 10.1093/ajcn/85.4.1142
  2. Bradbury, J. Docosahexaenoic acid (DHA): An ancient nutrient for the modern human brain. (2011). Nutrients, 3(5), pp. 529-554. Doi: 10.3390/nu3050529
  3. Zhang, Y. et. al. Intakes of fish and polyunsaturated fatty acids and mild-to-severe cognitive impairment risks: A dose-response meta-analysis of 21 cohort studies. (2016). The American journal of clinical nutrition, 103(2), pp. 330-340. doi: 10.3945/ajcn.115.124081
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  11. Karsten, H.D., Patterson, P.H., Stout, R., & Crews, G. Vitamins A, E and fatty acid composition of the eggs of caged hens and pastured hens. (2010). Renewable agriculture and food systems, 25(1), pp. 45-54. Doi: 10.1017/S1742170509990214
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