The importance of proteins for keeping the body going cannot be stressed enough. Proteins are made up of large chains of amino acids, which are important molecules needed for various body functions.
Each cell of your body consists of thousands of different proteins, and they form the basis of all life. The body uses proteins to build and repair tissues; make enzymes, hormones and other body chemicals, and help build bones, muscles, cartilage, skin and even blood.
However, unlike carbohydrates and fat, your body does not store protein. So, it is important that you eat sufficient protein-rich foods regularly to give your body ample supply of this vital nutrient.
Protein can be found in a number of sources like meat, milk, fish, soy and eggs, as well as beans, legumes and nut butters. When digested, proteins leave behind amino acids that the body uses.
How Much Protein does Your Body Need?
Health experts recommend getting about 10 to 30 percent of your daily calories from protein. The recommended dietary allowance for grams of protein that an adult needs each day is as follows to prevent protein deficiencies:
- Women (ages 19 to 70+): 46 grams.
- Men (ages 19 to 70+): 56 grams.
If you’re not eating the recommended amount of protein, it can affect all your body parts, from your hair to your nails. People following vegan, low calorie or vegetarian diets are at a higher risk of protein deficiency, which could be made up for by combining various plant foods to get the regular ideal intake of protein.
Here are the top 10 signs you are not eating enough protein.
1. Muscle Weakness
Sudden muscle weakness or pain can be a sign that your diet lacks the recommended amount of protein.
Protein is the fuel for your muscles, so your muscles suffer a lot when your body lacks protein. This can be a concern especially for men as they get older.
Men may experience a natural loss of muscle mass due to aging, and they may lose even more muscle if they are not eating enough protein on a daily basis. Post-menopausal women can also experience gradual muscle wasting due to lack of protein.
Your body breaks down protein-rich tissues for your muscles to use them. So, the initial effect of low protein intake is muscle wasting, accompanied by increasing weakness. Gradually, a diet that is low in protein can cause your body to lose lean muscle mass.
Plus, protein plays a critical role in how your body absorbs other vital nutrients, such as iron and calcium. Both these nutrients are important for overall muscle and joint health.
2. Poor Hair Health
Your hair is comprised mostly of a protein known as keratin, which is very important for hair health.
Protein is the building block of all of your cells, even your hair follicles. In fact, each and every strand of hair requires an adequate dose of protein to grow.
So, when you don’t get enough protein, your body starts conserving what little protein it has by limiting protein output. This in turn leads to hair loss.
Apart from hair loss, your hair is also likely to become dry and brittle. Hair health requires just more than protein. Other nutrients that play a vital role in hair health include biotin, folic acid, iron and vitamin D. If diet is inadequate for these vitamins and minerals, consider supplementation.
3. Frequent Food Cravings
Another sign that your body lacks protein is frequent food cravings.
Craving sweets is especially common in people who are not eating the recommended amount of protein. The cravings may suddenly occur more frequently, and even after eating something sweet, you’re never quite satisfied.
This happens because less protein intake means you are probably eating a diet high in carbohydrates and/or sugar.
Both carbohydrates and sugar can cause your blood sugar level to spike and make you feel hungry more frequently.
On the other hand, protein takes longer to digest, which makes you feel full and energized. It is particularly important to consume adequate protein – about 25-30 grams during each meal to prevent cravings.
Even though high-protein foods are sometimes higher in calories than carbohydrates, they are better at increasing satiety. This means protein-rich foods help prevent snacking and overeating, while also helping stabilize blood sugar.
4. Fluid Retention
Edema or fluid accumulation, especially in the lower body, is another sign of poor protein intake.
Protein plays an important role in keeping fluid from accumulating in tissues, especially in the feet and ankles, by holding salt and water in the blood vessels.
Without enough protein, these fluids can seep into surrounding tissues and lead to swelling on the lower legs and feet, which can be very uncomfortable.
You can tell you’re experiencing swelling due to fluid retention if the stretched or shiny skin retains a fingerprint after being pressed for a moment.
5. Lowered Immune Functioning
A low protein level in your diet may make you more susceptible to illnesses.
Protein helps keep your immune system functioning properly, as the immune cells are mostly made from proteins.
Protein makes up white blood cells, antibodies, blood proteins and a variety of immune molecules, including interleukins and cytokines. They all work together to attack foreign invaders, both biological and chemical.
Insufficient dietary protein can compromise your body’s ability to produce enough immune molecules and weaken your immunity. This may lead to more frequent and severe infections or illnesses.
6. Weak and Brittle Nails
Weak and brittle nails, as well as ridges in the nails, are some of the first signs that your body lacks protein.
Nails are comprised of laminated layers of a protein called keratin. So, for strong and healthy nails, proper protein intake is a must.
When your body lacks protein, it does not have the building blocks for growing strong nails. Plus, poor protein intake can cause white spots on your nails.
In addition, a shortage of protein may lead to more frequent hangnails as well as cracks and tears in the nails. This can make your nails more vulnerable to infections.
7. Brain Fog
A foggy brain, or short bursts of mental energy followed by the fog, may be related to fluctuating blood sugar levels and lack of protein.
Protein is important for many aspects of healthy neurological functioning. In fact, brain fog, poor concentration, lack of motivation and trouble learning can indicate a poor protein level in the body.
Lack of protein can lead to poor balance of neurotransmitters, including dopamine, epinephrine, norepinephrine and serotonin. Neurotransmitters are synthesized in the brain using amino acids, the building blocks of proteins.
Enough protein in your diet can boost work performance as well as learning and motor skills, whereas inadequate protein consumption can do the opposite. In fact, a deficiency in amino acids may cause a variety of mood disorders, including depression and anxiety.
8. Poor Sleep
Your brain controls all of the hormones necessary for a good night’s sleep. When your body lacks the protein necessary to keep your brain healthy, it can lead to a hormonal imbalance that will ultimately affect your sleep.
Additionally, when your body and muscles ache due to poor protein intake, you will have a hard time sleeping.
A 2016 study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition reports that consumption of a greater proportion of energy from protein while dieting may improve sleep in overweight and obese adults.
9. Bone Health
Protein is one of the key nutrients required for bone health along with vitamin D and calcium. These combined together play a crucial role in the development and maintenance of bone structures. Deficiency of these nutrients may lead to osteoporosis.
10. Mood Swings
Lack of protein in your diet can also lead to moodiness. Protein is responsible for chemicals produced by your brain (dopamine and norepinephrine) which make you feel happy.Eating good sources of protein like fish, eggs, legumes helps your brain to produce sufficient quantities of which these mood-boosting brain chemicals.
- Goodpaster, H. B, Won S, et al. Loss of Skeletal Muscle Strength, Mass, and Quality in Older Adults: The Health, Aging and Body Composition Study | The Journals of Gerontology: Series A | Oxford Academic. OUP Academic. https://academic.oup.com/biomedgerontology/article/61/10/1059/600461. Published October 1, 2006.
- Paddon-Jones D, Leidy H. Dietary protein and muscle in older persons. Current Opinion in Clinical Nutrition. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4162481. Published January 2014.
- Bopp MJ, Houston DK, Lenchik L, Easter L, Kritchevsky SB, Nicklas BJ. Lean Mass Loss Is Associated with Low Protein Intake during Dietary-Induced Weight Loss in Postmenopausal Women. Egyptian Journal of Medical Human Genetics. https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0002822308005099. Published June 25, 2008.
- Guo EL, Katta R. Diet and hair loss: effects of nutrient deficiency and supplement use. Dermatology Practical & Conceptual. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5315033/. Published January 2017.
- Leidy, J H, Clifton, et al. Role of protein in weight loss and maintenance | The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition | Oxford Academic. OUP Academic. https://academic.oup.com/ajcn/article/101/6/1320S/4564492. Published April 29, 2015.
- Weigle DS, Breen PA, Matthys CC, et al. A high-protein diet induces sustained reductions in appetite, ad libitum caloric intake, and body weight despite compensatory changes in diurnal plasma leptin and ghrelin concentrations. The American journal of clinical nutrition. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/16002798/. Published July 2005.
- Mamerow MM, Mettler JA, English KL, et al. Dietary protein distribution positively influences 24-h muscle protein synthesis in healthy adults. Journal of Nutrition. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/24477298. Published June 2014.
- Westerterp-Plantenga MS, Lemmens SG, Westerterp KR. Dietary protein – its role in satiety, energetics, weight loss and health. British Journal of Nutrition. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/23107521. Published August 2012.
- Coulthard MG. Oedema in kwashiorkor is caused by hypoalbuminaemia. Paediatrics and International Child Health. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/25223408. Published May 2015.
- Shaw AS, Filbert EL. Scaffold proteins and immune-cell signalling. Nature Reviews Immunology. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/19104498. Published January 2009.
- Daly, J R, RK S, J S, Liberman. Department of Surgery, University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine, Philadelphia. Health communication. https://europepmc.org/abstract/med/2105184.
- Dimitris R, Ralph D. Management of simple brittle nails. Freshwater Biology. https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1111/j.1529-8019.2012.01518.x. Published December 4, 2012.
- Rao TSS, Asha MR, Ramesh BN, Rao KSJ. Understanding nutrition, depression and mental illnesses. Indian Journal of Psychiatry. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2738337/. Published 2008.
- Zhou J, Kim JE, Armstrong CL, Chen N, Campbell WW. Higher-protein diets improve indexes of sleep in energy-restricted overweight and obese adults: results from 2 randomized controlled trials. American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/26864362. Published March 2016.
- Bonjour J-P. Dietary Protein: An Essential Nutrient For Bone Health. Taylor & Francis. https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/07315724.2005.10719501. Published June 18, 2013.
- Rizzoli R, Bonjour JP. Dietary Protein and Bone Health. Freshwater Biology. https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1359/JBMR.040204. Published February 9, 2004.