Protein is most known for helping us build healthy muscles, but the nutrient offers benefits from head to toe. In particular, protein plays an important role in your brain health, and getting enough of the right ones in your diet can help preserve its function.
Protein is found in every cell of the body including the brain, so it's important to get enough of it through your diet. That said, of all the protein-rich foods out there, some may benefit your brain more than others.
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As for which proteins support your brain the most, we asked a neurologist who told us that you can support your cognitive functioning over the years by adding more fatty fish to your routine. Here's why.
Nutrients in Fatty Fish
Fatty fish, which includes salmon, black cod, anchovies and bluefin tuna, is high in protein and other nutrients like omega-3 fatty acids (a type of "healthy fat"), making it a nutritious addition to any diet.
For example, a 6-ounce filet of cooked salmon provides 43.2 grams of protein and 246 percent of your Daily Value (DV) for omega-3 fatty acids, per the USDA.
With input from Sharon Stoll, DO, a neurologist and Assistant Professor of Neurology at Yale School of Medicine, we take a deep dive into how eating fatty fish on a regular basis can support healthy cognition.
4 Ways Fatty Fish Benefits Your Brain
1. It’s Rich in DHA
The brain consists of about 60 percent fat, so it's an important nutrient for brain function, according to John Hopkins Medicine. But some forms may be better than others.
Docosahexaenoic acid, or DHA, is an omega-3 fatty acid that's commonly associated with brain function, though it also supports a healthy nervous system.
Fish is an ideal source of DHA because it's readily available. In fact, most of the top food sources of DHA are fatty fish like salmon, tuna and cod, per the USDA. Plant sources of omega-3 fatty acids contain alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), which gets converted to DHA in the body.
Brain tissue may have a preference for DHA in order to keep the brain functioning normally and efficiently, per the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.
DHA is especially important for brain development in early childhood, according to the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. Though its effects are mainly seen in infants, the effects of DHA may also be seen during childhood and adulthood, per a January 2016 review in Nutrients.
In adulthood, low DHA levels have been associated with a higher risk of brain conditions like Alzheimer's dementia.
2. It Supports Healthy Blood Flow
The body is made up of complex systems, and they don't work independently from one another. The functioning of your cardiovascular system, for example, can influence your brain health.
"A lot of people don't realize how interconnected the heart and brain are — you can't have one without the other," Stoll says. "Healthy fats are important for brain health because they're important for the cardiovascular system, which then plays a role in brain functioning."
Keeping your heart healthy can lower your risk for brain-related health issues like stroke and dementia, according to the CDC. When blood vessels are damaged, your brain can face serious consequences.
"To keep your brain in tip-top shape, we want the blood vessels as open as possible," Stoll says. That's where nutrient-dense foods like fatty fish come in.
Protein is an essential nutrient, but animal proteins like pork and some cuts of beef are high in saturated fat, which can raise "bad" cholesterol levels in your blood and clog your arteries. This raises your risk for stroke and heart attack, according to the American Heart Association (AHA).
Fish is considered a more heart-healthy source of protein because it's not high in saturated fat. In fact, the omega-3 fatty acids may actually improve endothelial function (the lining of your blood vessels), promote vasodilatation (the widening of blood cells) and decrease artery wall stiffening, according to March 2017 research in Nutrition, Metabolism and Cardiovascular Disease.
Keeping your heart healthy, then, translates to better blood flow to your brain.
3. It May Help Lower Triglycerides
There's a lot left to learn about Alzheimer's disease, the most common type of dementia, but high triglyceride levels may play a role.
"Eating fatty fish is important for brain health for the same reason it's important for the heart — it's associated with lower triglyceride levels," Stoll says. It's true: High triglyceride levels in midlife are associated with a higher risk of Alzheimer's disease later in life, according to a January 2018 study in Neurology.
"Triglycerides are part of what blocks those vessels in the brain and throughout the body, which leads to stroke and heart disease," Stoll says. There's strong evidence that omega-3 fatty acids may help lower high triglyceride levels, according to the Mayo Clinic.
4. It May Help Lower Your Risk of Mental Decline
As the number of older adults (age 65+) is steadily increasing, so are rates of dementia and Alzheimer's disease diagnosis. An estimated 5.8 million people in the United States are affected by the disease, though the number is expected to rise in the coming years, according to the CDC.
Getting more DHA has been associated with a lower risk of these diseases, according to a June 2022 study in Nutrients. Low levels of DHA have also been linked to a higher risk. All that said, more research is needed to determine the direct benefits DHA may have on cognition.
"While the research isn't conclusive, one thing is definitely for sure — nutrients like omega-3 fatty acids may help protect your brain over time and could slow down the progression of brain diseases," Stoll says.
How Often Should You Eat Fish?
You should aim for at least two servings of fatty fish per week, according to the AHA.
Eight to 10 ounces of seafood per week should satisfy this recommendation, per the USDA 2020-2025 Dietary Guidelines for Americans.
- National Library of Medicine: "Protein in diet"
- American Heart Association: “Fish and Omega-3 Fatty Acids”
- My Food Data: “Wild Atlantic Salmon (Cooked)”
- Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health: "Omega-3 Fatty Acids: An Essential Contribution"
- Nutrients: "DHA Effects in Brain Development and Function"
- John Hopkins Medicine: "Brain Anatomy and How the Brain Works"
- Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics: "Brain Health and Fish"
- USDA: “Foods High in Docosahexaenoic Acid (DHA)"
- CDC: "Brain Health Is Connected to Heart Health"
- Neurology: “Increased midlife triglycerides predict brain β-amyloid and tau pathology 20 years later”
- Mayo Clinic: "Fish oil"
- CDC: “Minorities and Women Are at Greater Risk for Alzheimer's Disease”
- Nutrients: “Red Blood Cell DHA Is Inversely Associated with Risk of Incident Alzheimer's Disease and All-Cause Dementia: Framingham Offspring Study”
- USDA: “2020-2025 Dietary Guidelines for Americans”
- Nutrition, Metabolism and Cardiovascular Disease: Impact of omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids on vascular function and blood pressure: Relevance for cardiovascular outcomes