7 Signs You Might Not Be Eating Enough Protein
Your body has subtle ways of telling you that you’re not consuming enough protein-rich foods to fuel your muscles and overall health. Here's what to watch for.
You constantly feel weak and hungry
One potential sign of protein deficiency could be that you’re feeling low energy. Terry Hope Romero noticed that her vegan diet left her unsatisfied and lacking energy throughout the day. “When you work full time and have a long commute, and you regularly work out or you have a lot of errands to run, it can be easy to fill up on processed carbs,” says Romero. “To feel full every day, especially when you’re working out to build muscle, it’s not really the best approach.” Protein takes longer to digest, which makes you feel full and energized. When Romero started consuming more protein (by adding natural protein powders like hemp protein and brown rice protein to everyday foods, as featured in the recipes of her book Protein Ninja), she started feeling stronger and more satisfied.
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Your muscles look MIA
It takes more than daily gym visits to look and feel strong. You need to eat enough protein to fuel your body’s tissues with the necessary amount of amino acids (protein’s small subparts). If you don’t, your body will break down your muscles to get amino acids from their fibers. One key body part to watch is the clavicle, says Jessica Bihuniak, PhD, RD, assistant professor of nutrition at New York University’s Steinhardt School of Culture, Education, and Human Development. If your collarbone is becoming especially prominent, it could be time to make sure you’re eating enough protein.
You’re struggling to lose weight
A high-protein, low-calorie diet helps people lose weight, maintain muscle mass, improve bone quality and lose “bad” fat, according to 2019 study published in the Annals of Nutrition and Metabolism. Researchers put 96 older adults into two groups: a low-calorie, low-protein plan, or higher-protein plan. After six months, the people in the higher protein plan lost almost 18 pounds more than the low-protein eaters. They also maintained more muscle mass, had improved bone quality, and lost more “bad” fat (belly fat).
Avoiding protein deficiency is especially important on a diet because it helps ensure that you lose fat, not metabolism-boosting muscle, as you slim down. “High-protein foods take more work to digest, metabolize, and use, which means you burn more calories processing them,” the magazine notes. “They also take longer to leave your stomach, so you feel full sooner and for a longer amount of time.”
You’re losing your hair
Occasionally nutritionists will test the health of their clients’ diets by asking them to run their hands through their hair to see how much falls out with just a gentle tug. Hair is made primarily of protein; your hair needs adequate protein to grow and stay healthy. Protein deficiency can cause hair thinning or loss, according to a 2017 study in the journal Dermatology Practical and Conceptual. This means you may find yourself shedding more hair than usual. Maintain a healthy mane by eating two to three servings of protein a day, like these high-protein lunches.
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You’re always getting sick
Avoiding the sniffles often requires more than just good hygiene and good sleep; good nutrition is key, too. The immune system depends on the right fuel to function correctly. Your body uses amino acids found in dietary proteins to help build immune cells like lymphocytes, according to 2016 research in Food & Function. Lymphocytes are a type of white blood cells that help fight germs; if you don’t have enough, the immune system can’t ward off bacteria or viruses as well.
Your lower legs and feet swell up unexpectedly
If you skimp on protein, you may find yourself retaining fluids around your ankles and feet. Proteins help to hold salt and water in blood vessels; without enough protein, these fluids can seep into surrounding tissues, according to Harvard Health Publishing. The bloated sensation of one’s swollen lower legs and feet—called edema—is uncomfortable. The skin appears stretched or shiny skin, and if you press it for a moment, it will retain a fingerprint.
Your skin gets patchy in places
A protein deficiency can sometimes result in a flaky dermatitis, or irritation of the skin. You’re most likely to notice this on the back of the thighs and on the buttocks, says Dr. Bihuniak. Lack of a certain protein in the skin’s protective barrier can make skin more vulnerable to allergens and other irritants.
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- Terry Hope Romero, author of Show Up for Salad.
- Jessica Bihuniak, PhD, RD, assistant professor of nutrition, New York University’s Steinhardt School of Culture, Education, and Human Development, New York City.
- Annals of Nutrition and Metabolism: "Effects of a Hypocaloric, Nutritionally Complete, Higher Protein Meal Plan on Regional Body Fat and Cardiometabolic Biomarkers in Older Adults with Obesity."
- Dermatology Practical and Conceptual: "Diet and Hair Loss: Effects of Nutrient Deficiency and Supplement Use."
- Food & Function: "Dietary Protein Intake and Human Health."
- Harvard Health Publishing: "Edema."