Chances are, you're getting more than enough protein. According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), protein deficiency isn't super common among healthy adults in the U.S. Actually, since the typical American diet is so meaty, most Americans are probably consuming more protein than they really need. (NPR reports that the average American consumes about 270 pounds of meat annually, which is a whole other potential health issue.) However, if you don't eat a lot of (or any) meat, eggs, nuts, beans, seeds, whole grains, or leafy greens, then you might not be getting enough protein. Since literally every cell in the body benefits from protein, and it's responsible for helping the body build muscle, repair tissue, grow hair, and do a whole lot of other important things, you should learn how to tell if your body needs more protein.
If you think you might need to start eating more protein, but you don't eat much (or any) meat, know that you absolutely don't need to. There are lots of ways to make sure your body's getting enough protein that don't involve consuming animals. By the CDC's calculations, as long as you're getting the recommended amount of protein per day, (46 grams if you're a woman and 56 grams if you're a man), then you should be fine — (here's a handy chart to show you how). If you're worried that you're not meeting that protein goal, then watch for any signs that your body isn't getting enough protein.
You probably already know that if you're always tired, hungry, and struggling to lift even the "easy" weights at the gym, then your body is definitely trying to tell you it's not getting the protein that it needs. But you should also look out for these less commonly reported signs of low protein, too.
1. You Have A Hard Time Losing Weight
If you're trying to lose weight, but eating healthier and exercising more frequently doesn't seem to be having much of an effect on your weight loss goals, then low protein might be to blame. In fact, protein plays a much bigger role in weight loss than you might have thought. In a study which was published in Nutrition Metabolism, dieters who made sure that 30 percent of their total calorie intake was strictly protein actually ended up consuming 450 fewer calories per day, and they lost 11 pounds over a three month period.
A protein-rich diet is crucial to weight loss because high-protein foods keep you fuller longer and you actually burn calories when you digest them. As Women's Health put it back in 2010: "The moment it leaves your fork, protein starts winnowing your waistline. High-protein foods take more work to digest, metabolize, and use, which means you burn more calories processing them. They also take longer to leave your stomach, so you feel full sooner and for a longer amount of time." So if you're trying to lose weight, don't skimp on the protein — (although, if you're getting all your protein from meat, this could also backfire, because meat can lead to weight gain).
2. You Keep Getting Sick
Protein plays a big role in how well the body's immune system functions, so if it feels like you're always getting sick, then you might need to up your protein intake. Without the amino acids which are found in protein-rich foods, the body can't create the proteins it needs in general, much less the protein-packed antibodies that help it stave off infections. On top of that, according to a study which was published in Progress of Food and Nutrition Science, protein deficiency can cause the loss of T cells. Since T cells help the body's immune system function, and are responsible for fighting germs, it's no wonder that being low on protein equals more sick days. Frequent infections can also be caused by low iron levels, though, so you might want to boost your protein and get your blood tested for iron deficiency, just to be safe.
3. Your Legs & Feet Swell Up Often
Swelling of the lower legs and feet, or edema, can happen when the body doesn't have all the protein it needs. According to the Harvard Health Guide, proteins stop salt and water from seeping out of blood vessels and into surrounding tissue. So if you've noticed your body is retaining fluid around your ankles, and your ankle skin looks stretched and/or shiny, then you probably need more protein in your diet.
That said, edema can also be caused by long periods of standing or sitting, kidney problems, chronic bronchitis, and some other medical conditions, so you should probably make an appointment with your primary care physician if you've started noticing fluid retention around your lower legs and feet.
4. Your Skin Is Dry & Scaly In Spots
Back in 2013, the National Institutes of Health linked a lack of protein to the development of atopic dermatitis. In a study that was partially funded by the National Institutes of Health and conducted on mice, researchers discovered that lacking the protein Ctip2 can trigger eczema.
Reseachers at Oregon State University discovered that even at only eight weeks old, the absence of the protein Ctip2 caused dry and scaly skin to form in the 67 percent of mice who lacked the protein. Of those mice, 17 percent also formed skin lesions. So if your skin is dry and patchy in spots, and no amount of lotion and/or water consumption seems to fix it, then you might be protein deficient. Obviously, you should talk to your doctor about it just to make sure — but upping your protein intake while you're waiting for your appointment is probably a good idea, too.
5. Your Hair Keeps Falling Out
Though hair loss can be caused by iron deficiency, certain medications, and genetics, low protein can also cause your hair to start falling out. When your body isn't getting enough protein, it goes into malnutrition mode. When that happens, your body halts hair growth by shifting your currently growing hairs into a resting phase. This results in increased hair shedding which can take as long as three months to kick in.
So if it seems like you're shedding more than 100 hairs per day, (which is the average amount of hair strands we lose on a daily basis), then your hair loss might be the fault of a protein deficiency. Talk to your doctor about it just to be sure, though, because it's possible that your hair loss could be one symptom a more serious condition, such as a thyroid condition or lupus.
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