Protein is not only important for building and repairing muscle but also plays a vital role in healthy eating and weight loss. It is readily available in a variety of foods, including poultry, meat, dairy, fish, eggs, legumes, nuts, seeds, soy, and even whole grains. Research shows that consuming higher-protein meals or snacks can help reduce hunger and extend the feeling of satiety, making it easier to manage your weight.
The recommended daily allowance (RDA) for protein intake is 56 grams per day for men aged 19–50 and 46 grams per day for women. However, the specific protein recommendation for an individual can be calculated based on body weight. According to Lindsey Kane, RD, a general guideline is to consume 0.8 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight (about 0.4 grams per pound). For example, someone weighing 154 pounds would aim for approximately 56 grams of protein per day. You can track your protein intake using apps like MyFitnessPal.
Not getting enough protein in your diet can lead to various signs that indicate a deficiency. Here are some important signs to watch out for:
Loss of Muscle Mass:
Protein is composed of amino acids, which are essential for building and maintaining muscle. Insufficient protein intake can result in a decrease in muscle mass. You may notice this as decreased strength, changes in weight, or how your clothes fit, according to Randy Evans, RD.
Prone to Stress Fractures:
Protein plays a crucial role in overall adult bone health, in addition to calcium. When the body lacks sufficient protein to provide energy, it may start using skeletal muscle tissue as an alternative source. Over time, this can make your bones more susceptible to injuries such as stress fractures and breaks, warns Cheryl Mussatto, RD, author of “The Nourished Brain” and “The Prediabetes Action Plan and Cookbook.”
Low protein levels can contribute to irritability. Protein helps stabilize mood by mitigating the effects of carbohydrates that can cause blood sugar spikes, says Jamie Hickey, a registered dietitian and personal trainer.
Weakened Immune System:
Protein is a building block of antibodies that support our immune system in fighting off bacteria and viruses. Insufficient protein intake can lead to a reduction in T cells, which are important for immune function. Being mindful of protein consumption is particularly crucial during cold and flu seasons, notes Mussatto.
Brittle Nails and Slow Hair Growth:
Lack of protein can result in brittle nails that break easily and dull, slow-growing hair. When protein is scarce, the body prioritizes conserving protein instead of allocating it for nail and hair health, explains Mussatto.
In severe cases of protein deficiency, the body may struggle to adequately repair injuries or wounds. Certain events, such as surgeries, infections, or injuries, can increase our protein needs. Melissa Macher, RD, advises consulting with a healthcare professional or dietitian after such events to determine specific protein needs and optimal intake.
If you frequently find yourself heading back to the kitchen for snacks, it could be a sign of protein deficiency. Insufficient protein intake may leave you feeling perpetually hungry and unable to experience fullness, says Emily Danckers, MS, RD.
Unsatisfied After Meals:
If you consistently feel unsatisfied and hungry shortly after finishing a meal or snack, it may indicate the need to incorporate more protein into your diet. Protein digests more slowly than carbohydrates, providing sustained energy levels and satiety, according to Melissa Macher, RD.
Anemia: Inadequate protein intake can slow down metabolism, affecting the production of erythropoietin (EOP) hormone, which is crucial for red blood cell production. This can lead to anemia, a condition characterized by a deficiency of healthy red blood cells responsible for carrying oxygen to the body’s tissues. Fatigue, pale skin, shortness of breath (especially during exercise), and dizziness are common symptoms. It is recommended to consult a doctor if experiencing these issues.
If you frequently experience energy slumps throughout the day, protein may be the missing component. Protein slows down the release of glucose into the bloodstream, preventing blood sugar spikes after meals or snacks. Including protein sources in your meals and snacks, such as pairing fruit with nuts or nut butter or consuming Greek yogurt with fresh fruit, can help maintain consistent energy levels, advises Katie Vaughn, MS, RD.
Understanding the importance of protein and recognizing the signs of protein deficiency can help you make informed decisions about your diet and overall health. Ensure you meet your protein needs by incorporating a variety of protein-rich foods into your meals and snacks. If you have specific dietary concerns or requirements, consult with a healthcare professional or registered dietitian for personalized guidance. Prioritizing protein intake is an essential step toward achieving and maintaining optimal health and well-being.