Since becoming a mom almost two years ago, I’m so grateful my husband has upped his mindreading skills. Seriously. Between the constant requests to listen to Baby Shark and demands of, “Playdoh! Mama! Purple! Playdoh! Purple!” my ability to form a simple thought completely vanishes. So, having someone finish my sentence or predict the ending of my question has been necessary for my daily survival. And while some self-proclaimed health gurus might suggest my mom brain could benefit from supplements, special teas or other black magic solutions, there’s a staple in the American diet that research shows does function as “brain food”—animal-based protein like meat, dairy and eggs.

The brain accounts for 20 percent of our body’s energy use, and it requires many nutrients to keep it functioning well. Vitamin B12, for example, is important to many brain tasks and people who are B12 deficient can experience mood changes and cognitive decline. However, B12 is only found naturally in proteins sourced from real meat, and while supplements are available, some research has shown it is not absorbed or retained as well as the natural source.  The body needs more than 2 micrograms of B12 every day, and just one 3-ounce serving of beef provides 1.5 micrograms, so heat up that grill and throw on a steak!

High-quality proteins found in meat and dairy also play a fundamental role in a child’s brain development. Ever heard of choline? I hadn’t until I was trying to navigate through the dos and do nots of my diet during pregnancy. Choline has cognitive benefits to an unborn child through a mother’s diet. This essential nutrient helps us with our memory, mood and muscle control, and the best sources of choline come from eggs, meat and seafood. (So, maybe when my brain feels squishy like my son’s favorite “purple playdoh”, I should power up with a brain food like a hardboiled egg which provides 27 percent of choline’s daily value!)

Another not so well-known nutrient is creatine. In studies, creatine has been shown to help people dealing with stress and sleep deprivation and may also have benefits to those suffering from neurological conditions. Research has shown people with diets lacking creatine did not have as good of memory recall as those whose diets contained a more sufficient amount. And the best source of creatine comes from… Ding, ding! You guessed it: meat. A typical American gets two grams of creatine a day through meat consumption, and herring, pork and beef have the highest creatine content while fruits and veggies have trace amounts.

Protein is another nutrient that has the “real meat” advantage. Although we often think of protein in terms of its benefits in physical fitness and building muscle, it is critical in helping neurons, cells that transmit information to other cells, in our brains communicate. Eating protein can also help fight mental fatigue—something I routinely feel right around 2:30 p.m. While I usually reach for another cup of coffee at that point, perhaps I could benefit from packing more protein into my lunch or afternoon snack with beef sticks or cheese… heck, maybe both. They both pack a good amount of protein without loading up on too many calories. In fact, lean chicken breast has the most bang for your buck with 40 grams of protein in a 200 calorie serving.

While I tend to vary my diet, there are definitely some days I can tell I haven’t properly fueled my body to keep up with a very on-the-go toddler; I’m sluggish and battle a mental fog. I think one of the best things I can do for myself and my kiddo is eat better quality foods like fruits, veggies and real meats—packed with the protein and the nutrients my brain needs. As an everyday mama, I try very hard to be honest and ‘keep it real’—why wouldn’t I want that out of my food, too?

Learn more about author Caitlyn Lamm here.

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