Can’t find your car keys? Couldn't recall that actor's name or the word for that... thingamajig? Blame last night's steak. A new study out of London just found that people who eat more meat have worse short-term memory function than fish lovers, or vegetarians and vegans. The more meat you eat, in fact, the worse your short-term memory is likely to be.

The pharmaceutical industry is exploring drug therapies and medical treatments of all nature for conditions such as dementia and Alzheimer's. It could be that simply swapping out meat for fish, vegetables and a Mediterranean style diet could do wonders for memory function. And while not one is suggesting that salmon for dinner can conquer the worst of the brain loss diseases, every little bit helps – so a new approach to diet may be worth considering.

Any amount of meat avoidance may help, according to the latest study on how diet effects mental function. Researchers from Birkbeck University in London discovered that pescatarians, vegetarians, and vegans all exhibited better memory than regular meat eaters.

The Connection Between Diet, Sleep Quality and Short-Term Memory

The Birkbeck researchers aimed to determine if diet correlated with better sleep quality and also short-term memory. Published in Clinical Nutrition Open Science, the study examined 62 adults over the age of 40 who followed a variety of diets, including vegan, vegetarian, pescatarian, omnivorous (with high meat consumption), and omnivorous but with low meat consumption. To properly assess memory functionality, the participants took the California Verbal Learning Test – a common neuropsychological test.

“Adherence to a plant-based rather than a meat-based diet results in improved short-term verbal memory,” lead researcher and Ph.D. Candidate in Neuroscience Pinar Sengul said.

“A vegan diet is associated with superior cardiovascular and cerebrovascular conditions. Mediterranean diets [high fruit and vegetables, whole grains, legumes, nuts and seeds and low in red meat] are linked with reduced risk of neurodegenerative diseases and improved performance on cognitive.”

Plant-Based Diets Can Improve Short-Term Memory

The researchers found that diet had a significant impact on short-term memory. Even a modest reduction in meat consumption was shown to improve short-term memory function. During the California Verbal Learning Test, pescatarians received the highest scores. Vegan and vegetarian consumers ranked second highest, and both types of omnivores (those who eat a lot of meat and those who ate less meat) ranked last. The result indicates that red meat and poultry consumption is potentially linked to compromised brain and memory function.

Women Have Better Short-Term Memory Than Men

The study also examined short-term memory distinctions between males and females during the trial. Women performed better overall in every diet group with the exception of vegetarians. Among the vegetarians, men outperformed women during the memory test.

“This pilot study has found that there is a significant effect of gender favoring females over males in overall memory and a marginally significant effect of diet on short-term memory, with plant-based diets showing superior performance to animal-based diets,” the researchers wrote in their study, published in Clinical Nutrition Open Science.

The Birkbeck researchers examined the correlation between sleep quality and diet with the Pittsburgh Sleep Quality Index. The self-rated questionnaire recorded the sleep experience of all 62 participants. However, the study could not determine a link between sleep and diet.

How Can Reducing Meat Help Brain Function?

Countless studies demonstrate that cutting meat out of your diet can help prevent chronic life-threatening diseases including heart disease, cancer, and diabetes. But recent studies have started to examine the connection between red meat and brain health.

In 2021, a study revealed that the Mediterranean Diet can help improve brain health and even offer some protection against Alzheimer's. A plant-based diet helps improve overall health, including mental and mood function. That study revealed that reducing meat consumption can improve and maintain cell-regeneration and healthy oxygen levels in the brain.

Even a slight shift towards plant-based eating and away from meat consumption has been shown to have tremendous effects on memory and mood. In other research, psychiatric Doctor Ashok Nagella showed that a plant-based diet could lower inflammation in the body and brain, and help reduce stress within the brain, resulting in better moods.

“I agree there’s definitely a connection between mental health and diet,” Nagella said. “I’ve seen it anecdotally in the clinic setting. Also, there’s a significant amount of research to support that and evidence-based research. So based on the research, inflammation of the brain may play a significant role in causing or perpetuating mental illness and neuro-cognitive disorders.”

Bottom Line: For Better Memory, Ditch Meat and Eat Plant-Based

If you want to experience better brain function, including improved short-term memory, avoid red meat and instead of hot dogs, burgers, and sausages, try grilling with the best plant-based alternatives. For the best plant-based hot dog and vegan burger recommendations, check out The Beet Meters. 

More From The Beet