Protein for Optimal Mental Health
Dr. David Wiss
October 21, 2021
Understanding the links between protein consumption and mental health requires a very nuanced perspective of nutrition. Diets higher in protein can support optimal brain functioning and mental health. It is important, however, to discern between animal and plant sources of protein. Many individuals who consume high amounts of animal protein do so at the expense of plant foods.
Therefore, it is difficult for researchers to determine which factors in the Standard American Diet have more causal influence—is it eating certain foods in excess or not eating enough of others? This is a typical pattern in the United States, which is why many have termed the Standard American Diet the “SAD” diet (in jest) because it can lead to low-grade inflammation and depressive symptoms.
Plant-Based Versus Animal-Based Diets
Studies across the globe have shown that animal but not plant protein intake, is associated with higher levels of psychological distress and risk for depression [1,2]. Such conclusions can lead some to believe that animal proteins are causal in poor mental health. However, it is more likely that a low intake of anti-inflammatory foods (e.g., fruits and vegetables) is associated with depression risk. A meta-analysis of ten studies (involving 227,852 participants) concluded that fruit and vegetable consumption is inversely associated with the risk of depression . Meanwhile, other recent evidence suggests that compared to vegans, meat consumers experienced less depression and anxiety .
It is rarely a single nutrient or food group category that can be identified as a risk or protective factor, so the total diet needs to be examined in context (a plant-based diet can be a great diet for depression in some individuals). Other important nutrients for mental health include polyphenols and omega-3 fatty acids.
Protein is vital for mental health because proteins are built from amino acids, which play an essential role in the production of neurotransmitters. For example, the amino acid tyrosine is a precursor to dopamine, which is a catecholamine neurotransmitter involved in motivation, learning, and reward. Tryptophan is a precursor to serotonin, which is associated with feelings of well-being and happiness. In recent years, it has been discovered that the conversion of these amino acids into neurotransmitters is facilitated by gut microbiota .
Taken together, it is critical to have both the amino acid precursors and an optimal gut environment for neurotransmitter production, although production of neurotransmitters in the gut does not always link directly to neurotransmitter activity in the brain. Several pathways linking the gut and brain need to be considered in a “systems thinking” approach.
Other Important Considerations
Protein is also important for mental health because protein-rich diets can reduce sugar cravings. It has been shown that sugar intake from sweet foods and beverages harms long-term psychological health and that lower sugar intake may be associated with better psychological health . High-quality protein from organic animal products, beans, nuts, seeds, and some whole grains (e.g., quinoa) can create high levels of satiety that offset cravings for high-glycemic carbohydrates. Protein can help stabilize blood sugar.
Diets that lack protein from animal sources, however, can be low in iron, leading to anemia. Anemia has been associated with fatigue, irritability, and low motivation. Suppose one is consuming only plant sources of protein. In that case, it is wise to consider supplementation or have routine labs performed to ensure that anemia does not occur. One can get all the protein they need from plant sources, but it does require a strategy to sustain peak mental wellness.
Adequate protein is essential for brain health. It provides building blocks for other compounds needed by the brain. Risks associated with consuming animal proteins can be offset by consuming high amounts of plant foods. Plant foods optimize the environment in the gut for the necessary conversion and utilization of amino acids. For individuals choosing not to consume animal products, protein intake can be adequate with the addition of protein powders and regular consumption of plant foods high in protein, such as beans.
A reasonable goal is a minimum of 20-30 grams of protein at every meal, but one does not need to rely on the macronutrient model to achieve this (rough estimates can work well). Many people thrive on much higher protein intakes, but because everyone is different, we avoid universal protein recommendations. At Wise Mind Nutrition, we aim to help you find the protein sources and amounts that will optimize your mental wellness and experience living on this earth! Our program can help reduce inflammation, improve your immune system and gut health, as well as reduce symptoms of depression, anxiety, addictions, ADHD, and trauma.
1. D’Cunha NM, Foscolou A, Tyrovolas S, Chrysohoou C, Rallidis L, Polychronopoulos E, et al. The association between protein consumption from animal and plant sources with psychological distress in older people in the Mediterranean region. Nutrition Heal Aging. 2020;5(4):273–85.
2. Zhang Y, Yang Y, Xie M, Ding X, Li H, Liu Z, et al. Is meat consumption associated with depression? A meta-analysis of observational studies. Bmc Psychiatry. 2017;17(1):409.
3. Liu X, Yan Y, Li F, Zhang D. Fruit and vegetable consumption and the risk of depression: A meta-analysis. Nutrition. 2016;32(3):296–302.
4. Dobersek U, Teel K, Altmeyer S, Adkins J, Wy G, Peak J. Meat and mental health: A meta-analysis of meat consumption, depression, and anxiety. Crit Rev Food Sci. 2021;1–18.
5. Aslam H, Green J, Jacka FN, Collier F, Berk M, Pasco J, et al. Fermented foods, the gut and mental health: a mechanistic overview with implications for depression and anxiety. Nutritional Neuroscience. 2018;1–13.
6. Knüppel A, Shipley MJ, Llewellyn CH, Brunner EJ. Sugar intake from sweet food and beverages, common mental disorder and depression: prospective findings from the Whitehall II study. Sci Rep-uk. 2017;7(1):6287.