Everyone has their own unique diet. Some diets are made up solely of whole, fresh ingredients, others contain processed foods including fats and sugar, and so on. These dietary choices affect our mental health. More specifically, protein has a crucial influence on our mental health. Not getting enough each day can cause consequential damage.
When we become protein deficient, our blood sugar drops, causing us to become tired, irritable, and depressed. Maintaining healthy blood sugar levels by eating an adequate amount of protein regulates our mood and gives us more energy that will last throughout the day.
Why Protein Is Important for Mental Health
Two out of the 20 amino acids in the body use tyrosine and tryptophan to create dopamine and serotonin. Both of these neurotransmitters have a heavy effect on our mental health, decreasing levels of anxiety and depression. Without consuming enough protein, we become deficient in dopamine.
A study published in the Indian Journal of Psychiatry that looked at the correlation between nutrition, depression, and mental illness found that individuals who were depressed made poor nutritional choices. Researchers concluded that “lower levels of [seratonin] can, in part, lead to an overall insensitivity to future consequences, triggering risky, impulsive and aggressive behaviors.”
[Read: “9 Facts That Will Change How You Think About Protein.”]
While protein deficiency hasn’t been linked to aggression directly, aggression comes from low levels of serotonin, which we can boost with healthy, protein-rich foods. “Impaired functioning of serotonin-secreting nerve cells produces greater irritability and a higher level of reactivity to triggers and situations,” notes Dr. Lili Thomas. Think that “hangry” feeling we’ve all experienced. Going several hours without eating or not getting enough protein is the perfect setup for being triggered.
What to Eat? Quick Boost vs. Slow-Release Energy Food
When choosing a protein to nourish your body, it’s important to eat lean proteins that offer mental and physical benefits. Fish, eggs, legumes (peas, beans, lentils), and nuts and seeds are great choices.
Also consider slow-release energy food. Most of us have been somewhere in the middle of the day when we suddenly experience a blood-sugar drop that leaves us feeling tired and cranky. Instead of always reaching for a protein pick-me-up, try adding a slow-release energy source like oats, rice, cottage cheese, or whole-grain bread to your diet.
[Read: “Eat Less Meat (but Still Get Your Protein) With These 3 Power Seeds.”]
This easy recipe for One-Pot Cilantro Lime Chicken & Rice is protein-packed at 30 grams and also contains rice and beans as slow-release energy foods. It finishes off with peppers, tomatoes, and onions for a well-balanced meal. If you’re looking for a balanced breakfast to start the day, try this recipe for Almond Butter Banana Oatmeal. Between the oatmeal, almond butter, seeds, and granola, this is the perfect happy meal that will leave you feeling satisfied all morning.
For more on the type of protein vs the amount, check out “A Simple Choice for Powerful Health Benefits.”