Protein is an essential macronutrient – and while we can pull it from our organs, muscles, and tendons, if we’re in dire need of amino acids, over time, that can cause serious damage to your health. Protein is a building block for the muscles, and the fuel that supports the body’s cells and tissues. It’s a must for fitness, health, and longevity.
Of course, most people don’t give protein much thought at all, with the exception of bodybuilders and those who are on special diets like the Paleo diet which is protein-focused. And, the majority don’t really even know what proteins are.
What is protein?
These long chain amino acids are important molecules derived from one’s diet, most commonly known to be found in foods from animals such as meat, eggs, fish and dairy, though they can also be found in vegetables and other plant foods like nuts, seeds, and beans.
Your body produces 11 amino acids, but the other essential amino acids, nine of them, must be consumed from food. As they are used to grow and maintain just about every part of the body, from digestive enzymes and immune system antibodies to the hair and skin, they’re continuously being broken down and have to be replaced. Protein is utilized for every single cell in the body and is essential for building muscle mass, keeping our mood lifted, balancing hormones, supporting neurological function and aiding digestion. Protein-filled foods are also good for helping to prevent weight gain, as they make us feel fuller and more satisfied, requiring more work for the body to digest as compared to faster acting refined carbs as well as helping to keep the metabolism burning at its max.
Although amino acids are separate chemical compounds that are stored in a variety of foods, research has found that they are held together by peptide bonds – without enough diverse protein sources in your diet, you’ll risk becoming deficient in certain amino acids which can result in all sorts of negative effects from difficulty concentrating and poor memory to mood swings, low energy, unstable blood sugar levels, and serious challenges when it comes to weight loss, or maintaining weight.
Simply put, without protein, you would cease to exist.
How much protein do you need?
The average person requires half of his or her body weight in protein each day, which means if you weigh 140 pounds, you’d need at least 70 grams of protein daily, especially if you hope to burn fat and build muscle – for serious athletes, you’ll probably need even more.
The 20 different amino acids we need are all unique and have certain functions in the body, which means it’s essential to cover all of your bases by consuming a diverse range of high protein foods to ensure that you’re not lacking certain types. Even when an amino acid isn’t essential, it is more beneficial for it to be obtained from food, because it requires less work to obtain it from food, as it’s less taxing on the body. In the United States, and most other developed nations, people rarely become so protein deficient that it severely affects health, something referred to as Kwashiorkor, but as many typically eat so many of the same foods every day, without varying their diet significantly, few obtain all of the essential amino acids on a regular basis. That’s why it’s a good idea to eat a diverse range of protein-packed foods.
Are you at a higher risk of protein deficiency?
People who follow very low calorie, vegetarian or vegan diets, are at an especially high risk of not getting all of those important amino acids, as animal foods are considered to be “complete proteins,” which means they contain all essential amino acids, and many plant foods aren’t. However, you can combine various plant foods in order to create the ideal combination that offers all of the essential amino acids, such as beans and rice, vegetables and whole grains, along with including hemp seeds. Hemp seeds actually contain all the essential amino acids and also essential fatty acids which are necessary to maintain overall health – in fact, there is no other single plant source that has the essential amino acids in such an easily digestible form, nor has the essential fatty acids in as perfect a ratio to meet human nutritional needs. While the seeds come from the same species as cannabis, they only contain trace amounts of the compound THC, which is what causes one to “get high.”
8 Signs You Aren’t Getting Enough Protein
So, how would you know if you’re not getting enough protein? The signs below may indicate just that – although, be sure to keep in mind that when it comes to any type of nutrient deficiency, symptoms can have other causes too. This is a general list that can provide you with clues that you may have a problem, but it should be confirmed through a professional rather than used to self-diagnose the condition.
Frequent cravings. Frequent food cravings and the need to snack often in between meals can be the consequence of not enough protein and too many refined carbs, as protein evens out the highs and lows of blood sugars. Craving sweets is especially common – in fact, it’s typically one of the first signs. You may crave sweet treats more than you used to, and also feel as if you’re never quite satisfied. While you’d probably think that a shortage of protein would trigger you to reach for foods like a burger or steak, as one of the most important functions of protein is helping to keep blood sugar levels stables, it means when that nutrient is lacking, your blood sugar will be all over the place – triggering an urge to reach for sweets like candy or cookies.
Although high protein foods are sometimes higher in calories than carbohydrates, they increase satiety more than those types of foods, which helps prevent snacking and overeating, while helping to stabilize blood sugar. That allows one to retain more muscle, which burns more calories on a day-to-day basis and can lessen cravings too.
Brain fog. Having balanced blood sugar levels is important for many functions throughout the body, including the ability to stay focused. When those levels go up and down like a roller coaster much of the time, it can be hard to think and perform even basic tasks, a term known as “brain fog.” That’s because a steady stream of carbs is necessary for fuelling the brain, and eating protein at meals helps to time-release carbs so that you’ll get a steady flow of energy instead of those up and down spikes. Relying on foods like bread or crackers to get your energy up will only give you short boosts which are followed by brain fog.
Difficulty concentrating, trouble learning and/or a lack of motivation information can be signs that your neurotransmitters necessary for focusing like dopamine, epinephrine, norepinephrine, and serotonin are low. These neurotransmitters are produced in the brain using amino acids, and research has found that consuming a balanced diet that includes plenty of protein can also improve work performance as well as boosting learning and motor skills.
Sleep problems. Insomnia and other sleeping difficulties are sometimes associated with unstable blood sugar levels too, along with lower serotonin production and increased cortisol. If your body’s blood sugar is swinging up and down throughout the day, that continues at night – carbs require significantly more insulin than protein or fat, so if you eat protein-packed foods just before bedtime, that can aid serotonin and tryptophan production, which has a minimal effect and blood sugar.
Your cholesterol levels are high. As mentioned, a lack of protein in the diet, means you’re unlikely to feel satisfied, which can lead to constant snacking and poor food choices. High cholesterol and triglycerides are not just caused by eating fatty foods but are also a result of excess inflammation, hormonal imbalances, and high-processed/sugar-filled diets. If you tend to replace protein foods with unhealthy refined carbs liked convenient packaged products, your cholesterol is likely to rise as the cells and liver process fats less efficiently. Research has also found that a low protein intake can weaken the heart, creating a situation that’s much more likely to lead to heart disease and even death.
Your hair is starting to fall out more. As protein is the building block of all your body’s cells, including your hair follicles, a lack of it can cause your hair to fall out. When the hair follicles are strong, they help to keep that hair on your head instead of the drain, even with factors like pulling on it and the elements, like strong wind. But if you chronically get a lack of protein, the strands begin to weaken.
Irregular menstrual cycles. As a diet that’s low in protein and higher in sugar and carbs can contribute to excess inflammation, fatigue, insulin and weight gain, that can lead to a disruption in the balance of female hormones like DHEA, estrogen, and progesterone that are essential for sustaining a regular menstrual cycle. And, two of the major risk factors for a condition known as polycystic ovary syndrome, or PCOS, which can lead to infertility and irregular periods, are pre-diabetes or diabetes, and obesity.
You get sick frequently. Frequently illness is a sign of a weak immune system, and protein is required in order to build all the compounds that are in the immune system. If it seems like you’re getting sick constantly, whether it’s a cold, flu or an infection, and you’re otherwise in good health, it may be because of a protein deficiency.
Protein is a key component of the immune system, which is made up of white blood cells, blood proteins, antibodies and a range of immune molecules like interferons, interleukins, chemokines, and cytokines. These proteins work together to battle foreign invaders the body may encounter, including biological ones like bacteria and viruses, as well as chemical or physical threats such as a splinter in your foot or toxins in foods, water, the air your breathe, cleaning products, cigarette smoke and more. Many of these immune proteins are quickly manufactured on an as-needed basis to cope with problems like a sudden infection, for example. When your diet is insufficient in protein, that compromises your ability to produce enough immune molecules to handle these hazards and can result in more frequent and severe infections or illness.
In addition to more illness, when there is a shortage of protein you may start to notice that you get hang nails more often as well as cracks and tears in the nails or skin which can expose you to pathogens that may lead to infections.
Poor bone health. How much protein you get, or don’t get, also affects your body’s calcium levels. If you’re consuming a diet too low in protein, that can negatively impact the ability of your digestive tract to absorb this mineral, which results in a higher excretion of it into your urine. The net effect is that too little calcium is taken up by the body, which means it may look to your skeletal system as a backup source since the cells must have a critical level of calcium for proper functioning.
According to a study out of the University of Connecticut published in 2003 in The Journal of Nutrition, those with an inadequate protein intake over time were found to have decreased bone density as well as accelerated loss of skeletal mass, proving that too little protein can mean weaker bones, and lead to serious issues like osteoporosis, a potentially devastating bone disease.
What are the best protein foods?
If you think you may not be getting enough protein, overall, a diet that includes a mix of plant-based and animal-based options is the best approach to changing that. Some of the best vegan and vegetarian options are seeds like flax, chia and hemp, nuts like walnuts and almonds (here are the best homemade and store bought protein bars) and all types of legumes and beans, as well as unprocessed ancient grains such as quinoa, amaranth, farro and buckwheat. Good animal foods include grass-fed beef, raw organic dairy, cage-free eggs and wild-caught fish.