Protein is essential for living organisms. It gives us energy, helps our bodies recover, and keeps our tummies satisfied. Protein is composed of long-chain amino acids, which are the building blocks of muscle.
Your body produces 11 amino acids and the others—the 9 so-called essential amino acids—you must consume from food.
How would you know if you're protein deficient? Below are some symptoms that can be related to inadequate protein. Keep in mind that as with any nutrient deficiency, symptoms can have other causes, so this is a general list and not to be used to self-diagnose.
1. Food cravings
Constant food cravings and needing snacks often between meals may be the consequence of a high-carb/sugar and low-protein diet. Protein evens out blood sugar highs and lows.
2. Muscle and joint pain
Muscle weakness, pain, or being flabby where you used to be muscular may be a sign of your muscles or joint fluid breaking down to supplement calories instead of using the protein you eat to build muscles, tissues, and cells.
3. Slow recovery from injuries
To heal and rebuild new cells, tissue, and skin and for immunity we need a sufficient amount of protein.
4. Hair, skin, and nail troubles
Thin hair, hair falling out, peeling skin and nails, and ridges in nails are some of the first signs your body may not have enough protein.
5. Fluid retention
Edema, or fluid accumulation: protein plays a part internally in keeping fluid from accumulating in tissues, especially in feet and ankles.
6. Getting sick regularly
Frequent illness means you have a poor immune system and immune cells are made from proteins.
7. Brain fog
Foggy brain, short bursts of mental energy, followed by the fog may be related to fluctuating blood sugar and lack of protein.
How much protein should you eat?
It's pretty difficult to become protein deficient if you eat a diet with a variety of whole foods. If you aren’t getting enough protein, that probably means you aren’t eating enough calories, you’re following a bizarre or unhealthy diet, or you have some digestive imbalances.
If you eat too few calories, your body will use the protein you do eat for energy instead of building muscles, immunity, and healthy hair, skin and nails, etc.
At a minimum, the average person needs to consume 0.36 grams of protein per pound of body weight. For a person who weighs 150 pounds, that would be about 55 grams of protein per day.
But the “right” amount of protein depends on many factors, including activity levels, age, muscle mass, and current state of health.
Who's at risk of protein deficiency?
As we age our digestion and ability to use protein is less efficient.
Athletes burn more calories and use more protein to build muscle.
Those recovering from an acute illness or injury
To heal you need at least one and a half times the normal protein recommendations.
People who are stressed
Stress hormones increase muscle and tissue breakdown in times of both physical and emotional stress.
People on a weight-loss diet
It's been shown in studies that adequate protein is needed for weight loss to balance blood sugars and prevent muscle breakdown.
Those with digestive issues or low stomach acid
Many people have an imbalance in their gut and don’t digest proteins efficiently, which can lead to lowered immunity, weight gain, and protein deficiency. To digest protein you must have adequate stomach acid (hydrochloric acid or HCL).
What can you do if you think you're lacking in protein?
- If you're eating processed foods and lots of carbs and sugars, start replacing those with whole foods like three or four servings of fresh meat, fish, chicken, dairy, eggs, plus whole grains, fruits, and vegetables. There's great protein in plant foods as well as in animal products.
- If you're vegan, great protein sources include whole grains, lentils, soy, beans, nuts, seeds, and vegetables.
- If you don’t like protein foods or don’t want to eat them, consider a protein powder supplement made from soy, egg, rice, peas, or whey.
- If you think you may have low stomach acid, check with your physician or dietitian to get a good supplement.
- If you have too much stress in your life, look into learning to meditate or do yoga, or find whatever activities work best for you to reduce stress.
Lucky for us, protein is available in many forms, raw and cooked. No matter what type of diet you follow, we have a number of ways to add more protein to our diets in a healthy and delicious way!
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