7 Signs You Might Have a Protein Deficiency
Protein is important for building muscle, so you want to make sure you get enough of it.
If you're on the paleo diet, you’re probably loading up on protein. But if you’re an average dude without a strict diet in place, or you follow a different kind of diet, like veganism, you could really be missing the mark. And that’s worrisome; your body needs protein to maintain energy and metabolic functions, as well as build stronger muscles.
“Protein is essential in almost all body functions and is responsible for the structure and make-up of hair, skin, muscles, hormones, and enzymes,” says Jim White, RDN, ACSM Exercise Physiologist.
Seems easy—people today eat large portions and lots of meat. But, the amount of protein might not actually be there, and some of those large portions could be very carb-based and lack in nutrition. Or, as we’re so busy, we might skip meals, which will lower that daily intake.
TBH, protein deficiencies are very rare, and usually only occur if someone is following a restrictive diet or has some sort of medical condition, says Natalie Rizzo, MS, RD. Still, if you think you might not be getting enough protein, look for these symptoms.
1 Sign of Protein Deficiency: You're Losing Muscle and Strength
After guys hit 30, they start to lose 3-5 percent of their muscle mass per decade — a process known as sarcopenia, according to Rizzo.
"If someone isn’t eating enough protein, the protein that they do eat provides energy for their everyday lives and bodily processes and not enough of it goes to the muscles,” she says.
If you’re not eating enough protein, your body will start to pull protein from the muscles for use in other areas of the body, explains White. You might fit into clothes differently and have less strength. If you feel like you’re unable to go up in weights — or maybe even have to go down — you should definitely check your protein levels.
2 Sign of Protein Deficiency: You're Drained
We don’t mean a couple of yawns after a late night out or on a rainy morning. If you’re drained during the day, it could mean you’re not eating enough protein. “I would also argue that if someone isn’t eating enough protein, they probably aren’t eating enough calories overall,” Rizzo adds. “With that, a guy will feel fatigued and weak and will have trouble working out,” she says.
3 Sign of Protein Deficiency: Your Cravings Are Crazy
If all you can think about is a big chunk of steak or a peanut butter sandwich, it could mean you’re really in need of that protein, and your body is giving you warning signs.
“During protein deficiency, there tends to be a heightened appetite or craving for savory foods," White says. "Our body is designed with this compensatory mechanism so that in the event of a food shortage, we would in theory desire the high-protein foods that we desperately need to sustain us."
When you’re experiencing these cravings due to a protein deficiency, you might start to make some bad choices in what to eat. You might start to choose high-calorie foods in response to intense cravings and an increased appetite, he explains. You’ll also be ravenous in general, which can lead to overeating.
“Eating the right amount of [protein] keeps guys full and prevents them from overeating later in the day," Rizzo says. "If you’re not eating enough protein, chances are you will feel hungry more often than not and won’t be able to satisfy your appetite."
4 Sign of Protein Deficiency: You're Breaking Bones
If you’re getting injured during your workouts, it could be due to improper form and overuse, of course, but it could also be linked to protein consumption. “Particularly in aging adults, studies have shown a significant connection between low protein intake (<0.8g/kg) and hip fractures,” says White.
“As we age, a growth factor that positively impacts bone mass, called IGF 1, decreases. Increasing protein intake to a normal level can increase the plasma level of this growth factor and promote increased bone density," he explains, meaning you won’t be so prone to injury.
To pair with protein supply, add in strength training during the week, which can directly improve bone strength. “Successful weight training can truly only be performed in conjunction with adequate protein intake,” White says.
5 Sign of Protein Deficiency: You're Taking Forever to Heal
If you’re getting sick often and it keeps lingering, it could mean your immunity has been compromised due to a protein deficiency. “Protein is a vital nutrient for immune function and injury recovery. When people undergo surgery, they are told to up their protein afterwards to help with the healing process,” Rizzo explains.
“Without enough protein, injuries and wounds will take a really long time to heal or may not heal properly at all,” she says. You’ll also find yourself with the sniffles or common cold more often.
“Amino acids produce antibodies and other immune factors that protect the body from getting sick," says Kelly R. Jones MS, RD, CSSD, LDN. "Without enough protein (or energy), the immune system weakens, and it is easier to obtain the common cold or more serious infections as well."
6 Sign of Protein Deficiency: You're Getting a Belly
If you’re holding onto water weight and are experiencing edema, or swelling, throughout the body, it could be from inadequate protein.
“There are proteins in our cell walls that act as channels to pump electrolytes (sodium and potassium) in and out to regulate fluid balance (more water being in cells vs. outside),” says Jones. “With protein energy malnutrition (a real protein deficiency), edema is likely to occur."
It may present in some people as a distended abdomen, as cell protein channels aren’t able to effectively pump blood fluid in and out of cells, as they should.
7 Sign of Protein Deficiency: Your Hair and Nails Get Thin and Weak
Your hair skin and nails are all tissues — as are all of your organs — made from protein's amino acids.
“If the body is chronically not taking in the minimum requirement — or taking in too few calories and using protein as an energy source rather than for the body's structure — it recognizes it needs to prioritize vital organs, and you'll use amino acids for energy that otherwise would have created hair, new skin cells, and strengthened nails,” Jones says.