Many people in the West — generally speaking, developed countries such as the US, Canada, UK, France, and Germany — have no difficulty getting enough in their diets. However, plenty of people do, despite adequate access to nutrient-rich food in this part of the world. Reasons can range from lack of awareness about the need for enough protein to a calorie-restricted diet that does not allow enough protein. The consequences for not getting enough are pretty serious and far-reaching, wreaking havoc on every aspect of your health. Keep reading to learn more about protein, why you need it, and what can happen if you do not get enough.
40. What Is Protein?
Protein is a macronutrient, meaning that your body requires it in substantial amounts throughout the day. There are many different kinds of protein, and each one is a giant molecule made up of 20 different amino acids (via Self). Amino acids are involved in every part of your body, from making up your blood cells to hair to skin. While many people may think that they only need protein to help build muscle, the fact is that protein is necessary for every bodily function (via Eating Well).
You don’t just need protein before hitting the gym to sustain yourself through an intense workout. You need protein for your heart to pump blood, stand up and walk around your house, take a shower, or even get out of bed (via Eating Well)! To calculate just how much protein your body needs, take your body weight in pounds and multiply it by 0.36. That number will give you how many grams you need. Surprisingly, many people are protein-deficient (via Self).
Every cell in your body is made up almost entirely of water and protein, and it is one of the most critical building blocks of your tissues and organs, including your muscles, bones, blood vessels, and skin (via Self). You even need it to digest food, as protein is part of the enzymes that break down food as it passes through your digestive system. If you do not get enough protein, your body will not function as it needs to (via Eating Well).
Some people think that chowing down on protein bars and washing them down with a protein shake is a surefire way to make sure that they give their bodies the needed nutrients. However, the fact is that your body can only absorb a limited amount of it at a time, a maximum of 30 to 42 grams per meal (via Healthline). If you get more than that much protein, your body will not absorb it and store it as fat (via Men’s Journal).
As previously mentioned, to determine how much protein your body needs, take your body weight in pounds and multiply it by 0.36. The answer is how many grams of protein you need per day (via Eating Well). If you are active, you will undoubtedly need more protein than this amount, but you shouldn’t necessarily eat protein bars and drink protein shakes throughout the day. You can get sufficient high-quality protein by eating a healthy diet, and the protein found in food is much better than that found in rich bars and shakes (via Men’s Journal).
In kwashiorkor, the person consumes enough calories overall but not enough protein. The condition is common to areas experiencing a limited food supply, such as that caused by famine. It occurs when there is a lack of education regarding a proper diet (via Men’s Journal). In the United States, kwashiorkor occurs most often in nursing homes, whereas half of the adults living there may not get enough of it. If you have a loved one in a nursing home, be on the lookout for the signs of insufficient protein (via Medline Plus).
34. Another Kind of Protein-Deficient Malnutrition Is Marasmus
Marasmus occurs when people do not get enough protein and do not get enough calories. Marasmus is a more severe form of malnutrition than kwashiorkor, and the problem goes beyond a mere protein deficiency (via Medline Plus). People experiencing marasmus also lack micronutrients, such as iron and B vitamins. While marasmus is most common in developing countries where people may not have enough food, it also occurs among people in the United States. The latter has experienced severe diseases and eating disorders (via Men’s Journal).
33. Protein Deficiency Can Lead to Stress Fractures
Stress fractures are microfractures in bones that can build up over time to cause serious damage. They are most common on weight-bearing bones, such as those in the feet. Because protein is such an essential nutrient in building up bones, a lack of protein can cause them to begin breaking down, leading to stress fractures (via Eating Well). Additionally, when you do not get enough protein, your body begins “borrowing” it from other places in your body, including your bones, leading to stress fractures (via Mayo Clinic).
If you do not get enough calories in your diet — especially if you have reached the point of malnutrition where you have marasmus — you are also probably not getting enough. To make up for this nutrient deficiency, your body will begin using the protein you eat for energy rather than for the essential bodily functions you need it for (via Men’s Journal). If you think that overly restricting calories, to the point that you are not getting enough nutrition, is an excellent way to lose weight, think again (via Medline Plus)!
The most abundant protein in your body is collagen, and it is essential to building up healthy skin, hair, and nails. When you do not get enough, especially collagen, those parts of your body begin to break down (via Medline Plus). Your nails may start to fracture, and your hair can become brittle and develop split ends. Elastin, another protein, is critical to maintaining healthy skin, and if you do not get enough, your skin will lose its flexibility (via Eating Well).
30. Constantly Craving Food May Indicate a Protein Deficiency
Protein is vital in making you feel full after eating, more than fats and carbs. Eating it stimulates the secretion of hormones that make you feel full, and it also helps keep your blood sugar stable (via Men’s Journal). Constantly craving sugar may indicate that your blood sugar is unstable, and you need to eat more of it. If you are always hungry throughout the day and want to grab snacks every hour or so, you may not be getting enough (via Mind Body Green).
If you are aching for an omelet or chicken sandwich, you may be experiencing protein deficiency. Your body is crying out for more protein, so listen to what it says and start giving it more protein! You don’t need to eat protein bars; just start integrating enough into a balanced diet that includes mostly whole foods (via Eating Well). Starting the day with an omelet instead of a bowl of cereal and munching on nuts or bean chips instead of potato chips will help set you up for success (via Self).
28. Another Sign is Muscle Weakness and Joint Pain
Because it is so critical to building up and maintaining muscles, a protein deficiency can lead to muscle weakness and pain in the joints. This condition occurs mostly in older men and women, possibly because they are the most prone to experiencing a protein deficiency (via Harvard Health). They also tend to experience muscle loss when not consuming enough protein. Protein is also critical for joint health, so not getting enough can cause joint problems. Animal protein, in particular, is beneficial for joints (via Mind Body Green).
When you eat meals that are high in carbs, your body digests the meal quickly and converts the carbs into simple sugars (via Medline Plus). The result is that your blood sugar will spike and then crash, leading you to crave more sugar. Proteins and fats are digested more slowly than carbs, leading to more stable blood sugar and fewer cravings. If you constantly crave sugar, you may not be getting enough with your meals and need to substitute protein for carbs (via Self).
26. Two of the Earliest Signs are Weakness and Fatigue
When you do not get enough in your diet, you will likely begin to feel weak throughout the day because your body will start borrowing protein from other sources — such as your bones and muscles — to meet its most basic needs (via Self). Chronic weakness and fatigue are some of the first signs of a protein deficiency and will be even more pronounced if you are not getting enough calories overall (via Harvard Health).
Edema refers to swelling in the feet and legs, usually due to fluid retention. There are many causes of edema, one of which could be protein deficiency (via Harvard Health). The reason is that the proteins that circulate in the blood, especially albumin, help remove excess fluid from different body parts. If you are experiencing edema, you should consult with your doctor as quickly as possible because it is often a sign of a more serious condition (via WebMD).
Mood swings are unpleasant at the best of times and can make people wonder what is wrong with you. Often, the cause of mood swings is the result of a physical problem, and one reason could be insufficient protein intake (via Men’s Journal). The reason is that the neurotransmitters in your brain that send messages between your nerve cells are made of amino acids, which are the building blocks of protein. These neurotransmitters include dopamine and serotonin, which are critical for regulating your mood (via WebMD).
Protein helps build muscles; it is critical in everything from digestive enzymes to pumping blood throughout the body (via Harvard Health). When you do not get enough protein and your body begins pulling it from your muscles, you will lose muscle mass. This problem becomes more prevalent in older people, who are more susceptible to protein deficiency. Once your muscles begin to atrophy, you will need to work hard to build them back up (via Self).
You need to maintain a certain amount of protein in your blood, and if you do not get enough in your diet, your blood protein levels will quickly begin to suffer (via Healthline). Your blood will no longer be able to get adequate nutrients to your cells, and amongst other things, your blood pressure may start to plummet. Your heart rate may also slow, something known as bradycardia, leaving you feeling weak and maybe dizzy. If your pulse falls below 60 beats per minute, you need to see a doctor (via Men’s Journal).
You rely on your immune system to keep your body safe from nasty germs that come in and can make you sick. Protein is a critical building block of the antibodies your body makes to fight off those germs, so if you do not get enough, you will be unable to produce enough antibodies (via Eating Well). The result is that you may quickly become sick, and something as simple as a cold can knock you out for days (via Men’s Journal).
20. You Will Have Trouble Recovering from Injuries
Whenever you hurt yourself, maybe you accidentally cut yourself or sprain your ankle, your body should be able to begin to heal itself quickly (via Men’s Journal). Nevertheless, if your body is not functioning optimally because you are not getting enough, you will be unable to recover. Studies have shown that getting extra protein following an injury speeds up the healing process, while not getting enough slows it down. If you have recently been injured, you may want to ensure you are getting extra protein (via Mind Body Green).
Fatty liver disease is most often associated with obesity and an unhealthy diet. It can occur in people experiencing kwashiorkor, the form of malnutrition associated with sufficient calories but insufficient protein. What happens is droplets of fat begin to deposit themselves inside of liver cells, and if the condition is untreated, serious complications can begin to result (via Self). If you are experiencing symptoms of kwashiorkor and think you may be protein-deficient, you may want to schedule an appointment with your doctor and have your liver checked out (via Men’s Journal).
18. Some Populations are at Higher Risk for Deficiency
Generally speaking, people in developed countries get plenty of protein in their diet. Protein deficiency is most common in developing countries, where widespread poverty leads to malnutrition (via Healthline). Some specific populations in the US and other developed countries are at particular risk for deficiency, most prominently older adults, especially those who live in nursing homes. People with cancer also tend to have difficulty eating as much protein as they need, and malnutrition in cancer patients can lead to more severe complications (via WebMD).
Most people need 0.36 grams for every pound of body weight each day, and this amount remains pretty much stable for people who exercise regularly (via WebMD). Athletes, however, who are daily involved in high-intensity exercises that stress their bodies, need much more. They may need one gram of protein per pound of body weight each day. However, even for athletes, there is such a thing as too much protein. Too much can result in other problems (via Medline Plus).
16. You Can Easily Reverse Moderate Protein Deficiency
If you are not suffering from severe malnutrition or marasmus — in which case you would need to be treated in a hospital — protein deficiency is pretty easy to treat. The answer is simple: eat more protein (via Healthline)! Keep reading for more details about protein and, more importantly, ways to incorporate more in your everyday diet (via Self). That way, you can reap all of the benefits.
The worst way to get protein is to eat bars and drink shakes. These products have amino acids but very little nutritional content, and they also tend to come loaded with processed carbs (via Mayo Clinic). You also want to be careful of eating a lot of meat, which tends to be high in saturated fat, which is also pretty bad for you. The fact is that you can get protein from a wide range of food sources that also provide optimal nutrition in other areas (via Harvard Health).
Many people start their meals by eating carbs because they provide a quick feeling of satiation, but nutritionists recommend eating protein first for optimal health. Eating it before anything else at mealtime decreases the production of the hunger hormone, leaving you feeling full faster (via Medline Plus). Eating it first also helps ensure that you get enough of this vital macronutrient before filling up on carbs. The result is that your blood sugar and insulin levels will be more stable, leaving you feeling more satiated and less prone to mindless snacking throughout the day (via Healthline).
Many people snack on foods high in carbs and fat but deficient in protein, such as potato chips, tortilla chips, and cookies. You can improve your intake and help you stay full and energized for longer by opting instead for snacks that are high in protein, such as cheese and nuts (via Healthline). Pair some cheese with nuts and dried fruit for a nutritional boost that will help you stay focused on your work because you won’t be worried about feeling hungry (via Men’s Journal).
On busy days when the priority is getting out the door on time, many people skip breakfast or eat something high in carbs but low in protein, such as a bagel or a bowl of cereal (via Harvard Health). Opting for oatmeal is better because it has more protein and fiber, but the best breakfast option is eggs if you want to improve your protein intake. You may have to wake up 10 minutes earlier, but you will feel more satisfied and energized throughout the day (via Healthline).
One of the worst ways to consume protein is to eat yogurt that is heavily processed and loaded with extra sugar. Instead, experts recommend eating Greek yogurt with extra protein and less fat than regular yogurt (via Healthline). For best results, buy plain rather than unsweetened Greek yogurt and add your own toppings, such as fresh fruit and a little bit of sweetener (don’t overdo it!). You will be getting extra and some fiber and nutrients from the fruit (not to mention the calcium in the yogurt) without all the sugar and chemicals (via Men’s Journal).
Almonds are super healthy, rich in vitamins, as well as healthy fats that can optimize your energy even more than carbs. Experts recommend that you start eating slivered almonds on different foods to help boost your protein consumption without adding in a lot of meat (via Healthline). Silvered almonds on salads, yogurt, oatmeal, and even toast can increase your nutritional intake, including your protein, without all of the chemicals that you would get in a bar (via Medline Plus).
In a pinch, many people may eat pasta with vegetables or a bowl of cereal at the end of a long day and call it a meal, neglecting to consume any substantial amount. While there is some protein in pasta and in the milk added to cereal (and some grains have protein added), experts recommend eating at least one protein-rich food at each meal (via Healthline). This does not have to be meat — vegetarians and vegans can rejoice and be as simple as beans, lentils, or tofu (via Harvard Health).
Some protein powders are not loaded with garbage, and you can use them to make your own healthy shake if you do it right. Look for protein powders with ingredients that you can pronounce and use to make a shake by blending them in with fruit and even some vegetables (via Self). You will get a burst of nutrition from the protein, fiber, and micronutrients in the shake and may find that your entire day is more productive (via Healthline).
Who doesn’t love peanut butter? Unless you are allergic, adding more peanut butter is a great way to enjoy that smooth, creamy texture and get more protein. Peanut butter has many health benefits, including aiding in weight loss, making you feel full, and lowering blood sugar (via Eating Well). Start adding peanut butter to what you already eat, such as apples, crackers, and even oatmeal. A dab of peanut butter rather than regular butter on a slice of toast will boost the flavor and nutrition level, including protein (via Healthline).
You don’t want to derail your overall health in the quest to get extra protein, but many people make precisely that mistake by confusing it with meat (via Healthline). When you eat meat (and you do not need nearly as much as you probably eat), opt for leaner cuts and choose chicken and fish over red meat (via Men’s Journal). Chicken and fish are not only leaner and all-around healthier, but they are also better for the environment than red meat.
Cottage cheese is very high in protein, a full 23 grams in a one-cup serving! If you rush in the mornings and don’t have time to prepare a plate of eggs, try preparing cottage cheese the evening before (via Eating Well). Cottage cheese can make you feel as full and satisfied as a plate of eggs, and studies have shown that it can help you lose belly fat. Make a bowl with fresh fruit and cover it up so you can take it out the door with you (via Healthline).
Jerky can be a great way to add more into your diet, as long as you are not buying the kind made with a lot of extra sodium and other chemical preservatives. Look for jerky created from grass-fed, free-range animals, as this kind will have higher nutritional value and be less likely to contain all of the nasty chemicals you cannot pronounce (via Self). Again, be careful not to overdo the meat you consume, and eat jerky as an occasional treat (via Healthline).
Think again if you felt that edamame was the same as a soy-based meat alternative. Edamame refers to the unripened soybean in its whole form before being processed into soy-based meat and dairy alternatives. Soybeans are exceptionally high in protein, with 19 grams per serving (via Eating Well). Edamame can make a great snack or a filling addition to a healthy meal. It is also a good salad topper, adding in some extra flavor, texture, and, of course, protein (via Healthline).
Many people instinctively reach for processed white grains, which have almost all nutritional content removed. Whole grains have a pretty decent amount of protein, with amaranth boasting nine grams per cup (via Healthline). Brown rice, whole-wheat bread, steel-cut oatmeal, and couscous are all whole grains that have not had their nutritional content stripped and are pretty high in protein. Switching out white toast for whole-wheat toast in the morning can amp up your intake without much effort (via Self).
We all know that fish is healthy (as long as it is not loaded with mercury, like tuna and swordfish), but we struggle to eat as much as we would like. Eating canned fish is a great way to increase your intake because it is portable and does not require refrigeration (via Healthline). Bring a can of salmon to work with you, and during your lunch break, add some mayo and make a sandwich with some whole-wheat bread. You can also add it to a healthy salad that includes edamame and almond slivers for extra protein without the carbs (via Eating Well).