If you’re a health-conscious individual or exercise on the reg, you’ve likely kept tabs on your protein intake at some point. After all, you need the macronutrient to build and repair muscle tissue, keep your immune system in check, fuel your workouts and much more. The good news: Most Americans actually do get their fair share. In fact, based on recent surveys, many people consume too much.
“Our three major meals — breakfast, lunch and dinner — tend to center around some sort of protein,” says Roger E. Adams, PhD, Houston-based dietitian and nutritionist and founder of eatrightfitness.com. “Animal foods like beef, poultry, seafood, dairy and eggs are staples of most people’s diets and provide high levels of protein per serving.”
But what about the millions of Americans (a rising number) who are vegetarians or vegans? Or athletes and weight lifters who push their bodies to the limit every day? Whether you stay away from meat, poultry and fish or you’re wondering why you can’t gain muscle, let this guide clue you in on protein deficiency symptoms. If you think these describe you, it’s time to add more protein to your plate.
5 Signs You Have a Protein Deficiency
1. You’re losing muscle mass.
In order for your body to stay lean, or continue to build muscle and repair cells, it requires a certain amount of essential amino acids, the building blocks of protein. “If your diet lacks these amino acids, your body begins to break down muscle to get these necessary amino acids from your muscle fibers,” explains Erin Palinski-Wade, RDN, author of Belly Fat Diet For Dummies. “This results in a loss of muscle, a loss of strength and a decline in metabolism.” To prevent this, she suggests trying your best to meet the minimum daily recommended intake (DRI) for protein each day. (Check here to find your goal in grams.)
A great way to do this is to pack a high-protein snack for just after the gym. “Refueling within 30 minutes of exercise builds and repairs muscle,” says Painksi-Wade. To be more specific, one study found that protein synthesis was greater following resistance training if you consume 40 grams post-sweat, rather than just 20.
2. You’re constantly hungry.
Since protein takes longer for your body to digest than other nutrients like carbohydrates, it keeps you full longer. When you’re falling short on this nutrient, you may notice that you’re not quite satisfied from the food you’re eating and even from the amount. “A protein-rich meal will starve off hunger for hours compared to a meal predominantly made up from carbs,” says Palinski-Wade. If you’re still hungry after most meals or experience an increase in cravings, she recommends examining your protein intake. (Track your macro breakdown with one of these apps that make it easy.)
If you find you are missing your protein mark, try adding a little more at each meal. For instance, top your overnight oats with a serving of peanut butter or add edamame to your salads. Avoid saving all your protein for dinner, though, as Palinski-Wade warns that it may make you feel ravenous for the first half of the day.
3. You’re losing hair or experiencing skin irritation.
A healthy head of hair requires a diet that’s sufficient in protein. “When the body is in a protein deficit, it goes into preservation mode and stops making non-essential things like hair, nails and skin,” says Frances Largeman-Roth, RDN, nutrition expert and author of Eating in Color. “Adding adequate amounts of protein back to the diet will reverse the thinning. But it may take a few months to see an improvement.”
Just as protein helps with hair health, it also plays a large role in soft skin. “Amino acids are not only a huge component of hormones, but enzymes and antibodies, too” says Eliza Savage, RD, New York City-based dietitian. “Protein helps to regulate fluid balance, so when you don’t get enough, the skin may become dry with low intake.” One protein that’s specifically responsible for skin, hair and nail health: collagen. Good thing it’s now trendy to add it to your coffee.
4. You’re weak and lethargic.
Because protein is responsible for building and maintaining muscle, it only makes sense that a protein deficiency can result in the exact opposite: muscle weakening (or muscle atrophy) and fatigue. “Protein is an important macronutrient and is the cornerstone of many metabolic systems, thus, if you’re not eating enough, your body will tell you,” says Savage. “Without protein, your body will be unable to synthesize new muscle mass and complete other important functions.” With the right amount of protein, however, (and enough sleep), you should feel energized.
5. You’re getting sick often.
Many things can cause you to have a weakened immune system, but one key culprits is inadequate protein intake. “When you’re not getting enough protein in your diet, you leave yourself more susceptible to viruses,” Largeman-Roth says. That’s because a lack of protein in the body impairs the body’s T-cell system from fighting off infection, she explains.
Should You Switch Up Your Sources?
Experts agree that no matter how complicated or niche your diet may be — whether you’re vegan, gluten-free or paleo — getting enough protein should come easy. To make sure you get complete proteins, Savage’s rule of thumb is pairing a plant-based protein, such as beans, nuts or seeds, with whole grains. “Contrary to popular belief, you don’t always need to consume the foods at the same meal — just within the same day,” she adds.
It’s also a good idea to focus on other complete plant proteins like edamame (soybeans), quinoa, beans or hemp. Or, try protein powders made from egg, rice, peas or whey or add nut butters to smoothies, oats or quinoa for a protein-packed breakfast. For more savory options, Savage suggests busting out the slow cooker and cooking some lentils or embrace #tacotuesday and opt for rice and beans!