Many of the foods that we eat on a daily basis impact many areas of our body at once - more than we realize.
For example, the omega-3 fats found in fish oil supplements or oily fish like salmon get incorporated into our cells to fight inflammation but they also get specifically incorporated in the muscles cells of our heart thus optimizing the electrochemistry of this paramount organ.
Protein (e.g. lean beef, fish, chicken, egg, etc) is another major player in nutrition that has a variety of impacts on our body. Most people would agree that protein's primary role in our diet is to support and build muscle. More research is coming out every month reinforcing the importance of this for people at any age. Here are 3 ways that optimal protein intake can impact your brain function.
Protein Reduces Reward-Driven Eating
Research from Dr. Heather Leidy has shown that eating a high protein breakfast leads to reductions in the activation of reward areas of the brain when study subjects were shown sweet or savory snacks like pizza, french fries, and/or cookies.
Another study found that when people ate less protein, their brains were more responsive to reward-driven eating cues (e.g. seeing pizza and then wanting to eat pizza) versus when on a higher protein diet. When presented with a variety of foods, people eating the lower protein diet also ate more protein, seemingly in an effort to restore protein balance.
Takeaway: A higher protein diet can lead to decreased activity in the reward centers of the brain—which means that if you’re full of protein, you may not desire a pizza or cookie treat.
Protein Increases Fullness and Satiety via Your Brain
The satiating effects of protein are often touted as a reason to eat more protein when working to get lean. Did you know that these effects are driven by your brain?
When the protein you have eaten reaches your small intestine it causes the release of cholecystokinin (CCK). Now, CCK’s primary job it to aid in the digestion of fat and protein. But CCK also travels up to your brain and acts as an appetite suppressant.
The fullness you feel after eating protein is actually driven in large part by your brain signaling your body that you don’t need to eat anymore.
Takeaway: A higher protein diet releases CCK, which can act as an appetite suppressant.
Protein Decreases Impulsive Urges
Your body has a variety of hormones that can mediate fullness and satiety, like the previously mentioned CCK. But there is only one hormone that increases hunger: ghrelin.
Protein helps control ghrelin. (Studies have shown that when you eat protein, ghrelin levels decrease.) Other preliminary studies have shown that ghrelin can act on the brain leading to increases in impulsivity and decreases in decision making.
This is especially important when you are working to control your food intake to lose weight or improve health.
When you are eating less calories than your body needs (as you will need to do in order to lose fat), ghrelin levels increase. Eating higher amounts of protein at every meal helps control increased ghrelin levels while dieting, making you less hungry and less impulsive.
Takeaway: Eating more protein while dieting can help control increased ghrelin levels, which can make you less impulsive—especially with food.
How to Optimize Protein Intake in Your Brain In Mind
Optimizing your protein intake so that you can gain these brain benefits is not as complicated as you may think. When it comes to protein there are two things that you need to focus on: timing and amount. 30 grams of protein is the amount that you want to shoot for eating at each meal. When it comes to timing you want to eat protein at every meal.
30 grams is enough protein such that you can benefit from both the feeling of fullness and satiety that we have discussed (eating less protein doesn't provide your body enough to trigger this effect in your body). 30 grams is also the amount that you need to optimize the muscle support that protein is so famous for.
Getting 30 grams of protein at breakfast isn't a challenge for most people as American's traditionally eat high protein dinners. It is breakfast and lunch that are more of a challenge. There is some emerging protein research that suggests that breakfast may be the most important time of the day to eat protein ample protein so if you are going to focus your protein efforts in just one place - make it breakfast Most people (here are some ideals on how to get 30 grams of protein at breakfast).