Fat around your waistline that won’t go away and chronic fatigue: these are just 2 of the annoying symptoms of a possible protein deficiency. But getting the right amount of protein based on your size, age and activity level is not an easy task unless you make a conscious effort to do so. A diet high in processed foods, or vegetarian/ vegan diets can naturally be low in protein. And the result, according to what scientists know today, can be annoying health issues in the short term, which then become serious problems the longer the deficiency exists1.
Some people are not aware of the simple rule of thumb for the amount of protein they need: 80% of your normal, ideal weight in kilos is the amount of grams of protein you need per day. More is needed if you are an athlete or very physically active. Some people are aware of this guideline but still don’t get the amount of protein needed because they haven’t looked closely at what they’re eating.
This was my case: I knew the rule and had the “impression” that I was close to getting the daily amount of necessary protein until I looked closely at what I was eating: I simply monitored for one day what I ate, looked at the labels and read the analysis of certain foods in my pocket calorie counter book. The result? What a shock! Though I knew my target, I was barely getting half of the necessary amount of protein per day. At 57 kgs, that’s around 47 grams of protein per day, if not more when I do a lot of exercise. So I rounded that number up to 50 grams per day, and placed a target of 16 grams per meal. My little yoghurt at breakfast? Barely 6 grams of protein! I was far from the target of 16 grams. Lunch and dinner were a bit better, but at the end of the day I still didn’t hit my target.
So what’s all the fuss about? What happens when you’re deficient in protein?
Here are 6 signs of a possible protein deficiency:
- You have fat where you used to have muscle: Your body needs protein to build muscle and then to maintain the muscle it has. When it can’t extract enough protein from your diet, it takes it where it can get it, and that’s in your own muscle tissue. So your muscles are smaller.
- You’re tired easily when you try to do some physical activity. Protein is necessary to build muscle after a strenous work-out. When the diet is low in protein, the body can’t build the required muscle tissue and so it tires easily.
- You get hungry faster after a meal and often with strong, ravenous hunger pains. Protein is a slower burning energy source compared to carbohydrates, so it takes longer to break down, keeping us satiated longer. It also levels out your blood sugar levels, so you don’t get the peaks and troughs of energy like you do with a high carbohydrate diet.
- You don’t heal as quickly as you used to: the body needs protein to rebuild tissue after an injury, so when its not there it takes longer to heal.
- Your hair falls out. Hair is made of protein and so are your nails. When there’s a lack of protein, the body forgoes allocating resources to strengthen these non-essential items. Increased hair loss and brittle nails are the result.
- You’re generally tired when you used to have more energy. Marked slumps of energy in the afternoon (especially after lunch) are normal. But if they continue on into the evening when they didn’t used to, then it could be a sign of protein deficiency.
What you can do about this now:
- First, become more aware of what you are actually consuming in protein per day by noting what you have eaten during one day:
- Look at the labels for the protein count for the portion you ate
- Have a pocket calorie counter handy (I keep a paper-back calorie counter in my kitchen as a quick reference). It will give you the protein analysis of food per 100 grams as well as the calorie count. Try to do an approximation of what you’ve consumed. One way or another, you’ll be surprised.
- Adjust your protein intake according to the results you’ve found from that one day of monitoring. Above all, make sure you start your day with a good amount of protein. Nutrionists and health scientists know that for an adult, starting the day with 20-30 grams of protein (depending on your size, age and gender) is essential2. It will determine how you feel and how much energy you have for the rest of the day. I’m still off-target on this one, but I’m working on it.
Not only will meeting your protein target help you maintain your energy and your muscle mass, but you may find there are weight benefits too: Re-adjusting your diet to lower the amount of simple carbohydrates and increase the amount of high quality protein may well help to burn some of the fat, especially around the waistline3.
If you have a diet high in procesed foods, increasing your protein and diminishing carbs is not difficult, as those products are high in carbs. Read the labels on processed foods and you’ll be surprised at the carb count. Protein sources are relatively expensive for industrial manufactuers, so they load their products with low quality carbs. As scientists now know, not all calories are created equal: a high carb diet (especially when there’s also a lot of sugar) signals the body to store fat.
Do any of the 6 symptoms apply to you? Do you know your daily protein target? Have you measured the amount of protein you eat in a day?
- Harvard School of Public Health;”What should I eat?” https://www.hsph.harvard.edu/nutritionsource/what-should-you-eat/protein/#ref2
- University of Missouri-Columbia. “Protein-rich breakfast helps curb appetite throughout the morning.” Science Daily, 14 November 2013. https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2013/11/131114102528.htm National Institutes of Health: “Breakfast higher in protein reduces hunger better than those higher in carbohydrate.” https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/26885386
- National Institutes of Health; “Egg breakfast enhances weight loss.” https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/18679412