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10 Sneaky Signs You're Low In Protein & How To Bump Up Your Intake

Hannah Frye
Author:
January 16, 2024
Hannah Frye
Assistant Beauty & Health Editor
By Hannah Frye
Assistant Beauty & Health Editor
Hannah Frye is the Assistant Beauty Editor at mindbodygreen. She has a B.S. in journalism and a minor in women’s, gender, and queer studies from California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo. Hannah has written across lifestyle sections including health, wellness, sustainability, personal development, and more.
Woman outdoors on beach in sweater during fall / winter
Image by BONNINSTUDIO / Stocksy
January 16, 2024

Protein has become a buzzword in the well-being space, and for good reason. This macronutrient is essential for supporting your muscles, fueling your brain, keeping your immune system strong, and leaving you satisfied between meals. 

Many functional health experts would agree: Plenty of people could use more protein in their diet—but how do you know if you're one of them? To come, 10 sneaky signs you could benefit from more protein and how to up your intake without driving yourself crazy. 

10 signs you're low in protein

  1. Low lean muscle mass: This one probably won't come as a surprise, but it's worth reiterating: Research has shown that low protein intake can reduce lean muscle mass1, which also means reduced strength. Having strong muscles isn't just an aesthetic thing: Lean mass helps support musculoskeletal health and combats other concerns2 that can impact longevity as we age. Low muscle mass has also been associated with other health implications such as cognitive function3 concerns, insulin sensitivity4 struggles, and suboptimal inflammatory balance in the body, so it's worth paying attention to.
  2. Lacking exercise results & recovery: Protein is also essential for helping our muscles repair and rebuild after a workout. If you have hit an exercise plateau, research shows that protein can help improve muscle recovery5. Hence, another reason experts recommend consuming protein before or after a workout.
  3. Feeling overly tired: Being low on protein can also lead to lower energy levels6, which can negatively impact performance and day-to-day activities.
  4. Always feeling hungry: As mentioned earlier, not eating enough protein in a meal can leave you feeling hungry. Protein is the most satiating macronutrient7, after all. If you're constantly feeling hungry even right after you eat, low protein intake could be to blame.
  5. Brittle hair and nails: According to UCLA Health, brittle hair and nails are often the first signs of insufficient protein intake—hence why the beauty industry is actually very pro-protein.
  6. Crepey skin: Vitamin C isn't the only important skin food. "Years of ingesting insufficient or poor-quality protein is also a major contributor," board-certified dermatologist Carl Thornfeldt, M.D., previously told mindbodygreen about crepey skin. 
  7. Suboptimal glucose & insulin balance: The data consistently show that having whey protein before a meal helps support blood sugar balance after you eat.* This is because the amino acid building blocks in protein, especially leucine, have a strong positive effect on insulin—the hormone responsible for lowering blood sugar when it's elevated.
  8. Immune health struggles: A diet low in protein is well-known to contribute to suboptimal immune system function8 due to the relationship between protein and optimized T-cell function.
  9. Brain fog & mood: Amino acids serve as precursors to neurotransmitters9, which are the backbone of cognitive health, focus, and mood. When compared to a diet high in carbohydrates, a protein-rich diet has been shown to lower the odds of cognitive decline later in life10
  10. Joint aches & weak bones: Protein has been shown to be protective against joint health concerns and discomfort11. Additionally, plenty of research suggests that increased protein intake can support stronger bones12 (which are essential for healthy, comfortable aging). 

What to do about it

Say you're experiencing a handful of the signs listed above—what now? The obvious answer is to eat more protein, but that's not always as easy as it sounds.

As mindbodygreen's supplements editor Molly Knudsen, M.S., RDN, wrote about her experience going from 60 grams to 100 grams of protein a day, bumping up your intake often requires building your meals around your protein source and increasing the serving sizes of your favorite high-protein foods (check out a list of 'em here).

In order to meaningfully up your protein intake for the sake of your health, you'll also want to pay attention to protein quality. Protein sources that contain adequate amounts of leucine (2.5-3 grams per serving) will be more effective for promoting muscle protein synthesis—aka, the growth of new muscles. Animal proteins tend to be higher in leucine than plant proteins.

If you struggle to get enough high-quality protein through whole food sources, protein powders can also be really helpful. Add a scoop of mindbodygreen grass-fed whey protein isolate+ to your yogurt bowl or morning smoothie to instantly start your day with 25 grams of protein (complete with 2.5 grams of leucine). The protein powder also tastes delicious with no funky additives, making it a great option for a clean post-gym refuel that will reward your muscles for all that hard work.*

Simple swaps can top off your new high-protein plan. Swap traditional pasta for a bean- or lentil-based alternative such as chickpea pasta to get an extra protein boost, or use bone broth instead of water as a base for soups or to cook rice.

The takeaway

With all of the hype around protein, it's good to know what less-than-ideal intake looks like in real life. If you're struggling to build muscle, feel sluggish, recover slowly from your workouts, or notice brittle hair and nails, you may want to seek out some protein support. Not sure how much to aim for? Here's what longevity experts suggest for daily intake in women.

If you are pregnant, breastfeeding, or taking medications, consult with your doctor before starting a supplement routine. It is always optimal to consult with a health care provider when considering what supplements are right for you

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