When You Don't Eat Enough Protein, This Is What Happens To Your Brain

We know that protein is essential for building strong muscles, having healthy bones, and maintaining our energy levels, but have you ever considered the potential cognitive benefits of protein? In a 2021 systematic review published in Nutrition and Metabolic Insights, researchers analyzed findings from nine different studies, six of which specifically focused on protein intake in relation to overall cognitive function in older adults. Although the findings were mixed, three studies found that eating higher amounts of protein significantly boosted memory while another study found that greater protein consumption increased processing speed, attention, verbal fluency, and visuospatial functioning.

Expert recommendations state that adults should get 0.8 grams of dietary protein per kilogram of body weight each day (per Food & Function). While many Americans tend to overdo it on protein, a 2019 study published in The Journal of Nutrition, Health & Aging found that out of more than 11,000 older adults, nearly half weren't getting enough protein in their diet. What effects might this have on cognitive functioning?

Inadequate protein may increase risk of cognitive decline

A lack of dietary protein may make us more prone to cognitive decline down the line, according to 2022 research findings published in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. Over the course of more than two decades, the study team tracked over 49,000 women and more than 27,000 men to see how their long-term eating habits impacted their health. The study findings showed that in comparison to carbohydrates, the more protein the participants ate, the lower their risk for cognitive decline.

The types of protein sources participants consumed also appeared to play a role. Individuals who ate greater amounts of hot dogs, for example, were found to be more susceptible to cognitive decline. On the other hand, higher consumption of fish, beans, legumes, and lean poultry appeared to reduce the risk of cognitive decline. "Peas and lima beans in particular were associated with a 28% lower risk of cognitive decline for every additional three servings per week," the lead author of the study Dr. Tian-Shin Yeh told Harvard Health Publishing in a press release.

Ways to protect against cognitive decline

In addition to maintaining a protein-rich diet, there are other ways we can go about protecting ourselves against cognitive decline as we get older. Experts at the National Institute on Aging state that one major way in which we can support our brain health is to be diligent about our physical health — and we're not only talking about exercise. This also includes refraining from smoking, limiting alcohol consumption, reducing the risk of head injuries, getting plenty of sleep, and managing hypertension or hyperlipidemia.

In addition to giving your body a workout, don't forget to work out your brain, too. This encompasses everything from staying socially engaged to trying out new hobbies. Dancing, writing, sewing, or playing games are just a few of the many different activities that may benefit our cognitive health. However, because some research has shown conflicting results as to the efficacy of such activities on mental functioning, more study is still needed.