We all know that eating protein can help you build muscle. But new research is showing how protein can also reduce food cravings, help us eat less, and reduce impulsivity. (And let’s be honest here guys: We could all afford to be less impulsive, especially when it comes to food.) Because I always want to bring in the best, I asked my friend Dr. Mike Roussell, who has a PhD in nutrition, to give us a quick take on this new research—and provide some practical tips we can start using immediately.
From Malnourished to Muscle-Building: How the Protein Discussion Has Evolved
Before we get into the new research and what it means for us and our brains, it’s important to jump into the time machine and revisit the protein discussion from the past couple of decades.
The first blip on the radar was when scientists started focusing on the amount of protein we humans needed to eat in order to prevent essential amino acid malnutrition. This is how recommended dietary allowances (RDA’s) were formed, and why so many people got it stuck in their head that they didn’t need to eat more than 56 grams of protein per day.
Shortly after that, protein discussion among fitness and weightlifting circles began to center around muscle growth and recovery. So instead of thinking of the minimum amount of protein we needed in order to not be malnourished, we started asking, in effect, “How much protein is required in order to build muscle and look good naked?”
Thanks to the effort of countless scientists (and gym rats), we landed on three important findings over the past decade:
- Get 30 grams of animal protein every four hours. Approximately 30g of animal protein every four hours is what is needed to maximize the protein synthesis stimulus (e.g. maximally flipping your muscle building switch). This is an approximation of the amount of protein needed to meet the leucine threshold. (So, if you eat plant sources of protein which are generally lower in leucine, it might require a larger amount of total protein to get the same effect.)
- Drink a BCAA drink two hours before or after a meal. Essential free form amino acids (such as a BCAA drink) can be consumed two hours after or before a meals in an effort to further enhance muscle protein synthesis signaling. Because free-form amino acids cause rapid increases and subsequent decreases in blood amino acid levels, you can get this extra bump in protein synthesis without interfering with how your body uses the protein that you eat during your main meals.
- Eat protein after your workout. Having protein directly after your workout can strengthen the muscle-building signaling from your body that occurs due to exercise.
These three points summarize the great strides in our understanding of protein and its impact on muscle repair and growth. But now I want to look to the current state of things—and the very near future.
While there is a lot more research to be done, I believe the next frontier of protein research will be in studying how the protein we eat impacts our brain.
3 Ways Protein Impacts Our Brains
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 (hippocampal and parahippocampal areas) 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.
CCK cannot cross over the blood brain barrier but it instead interacts with part of the brainstem that is not behind the blood brain barrier. 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.) Animals 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 dieting.
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.
(And just like Joel mentioned above, when you’re dieting and hungry it helps if you aren’t so damn impulsive.)
Takeaway: Eating more protein while dieting can help control increased ghrelin levels, which can make you less impulsive—especially with food.
Wrap-Up (And One Simple Action To Take Today)
Protein is an incredible part of our diet that has far reaching effects on our ability to build muscle and on hormones that regulate our metabolism and body weight. But new research is showing that protein can also impact our brain function.
So how can you get these benefits, starting right now?
The easiest way is to start eating 30 grams of protein at each meal. This will create a solid physiological foundation for a high-performance body—and brain.
About the Author: Dr. Mike Roussell is a nutrition PhD that oversees the nutrition and wellness of professional athletes, movies stars, and high profile executives. He is also the formulator of Cerevan, a breakthrough nootropic that increases attention, memory, and the ability to multi-task. You can learn more about Dr. Mike at mikeroussell.com.