Proteins are essentials to keep the body going. They are long chains of amino acids, which are important molecules needed for different body functions.
Protein is a component of every cell in your body. The body uses it to build and repair tissue; make enzymes, hormones and other body chemicals; and help build bones, muscles, cartilage, skin and even blood.
Unlike carbohydrates and fat, your body does not store protein. So, you need to eat protein-rich foods regularly to give your body a good supply of this vital nutrient.
Protein comes from a variety of sources, including meat, milk, fish, soy and eggs, as well as beans, legumes and nut butters. Upon digestion, proteins leave behind amino acids that the body uses.
Health experts recommend getting about 10 to 30 percent of your daily calories from protein. The recommended dietary allowance for grams of protein that an adult needs each day is as follows:
- Women (ages 19 to 70+): 46 grams.
- Men (ages 19 to 70+): 56 grams.
If you’re not eating the recommended amount of protein, it can affect all your body parts, from your hair to your nails.
Here are the top 10 signs that you are not eating enough protein.
1. Muscle Weakness
Sudden muscle weakness or pain can be a sign that your diet lacks the recommended amount of protein.
Protein is the fuel for your muscles, so your muscles suffer a lot when your body lacks protein. This can be a concern especially for men as they get older. Men may experience a natural loss of muscle mass due to aging, and they may lose even more muscle if they are not eating enough protein on a daily basis.
Your body breaks down protein-rich tissues for your muscles to use them. So, the initial effect of low protein intake is muscle wasting, accompanied by increasing weakness. Gradually, a diet that is low in protein can cause your body to lose lean muscle mass.
Plus, protein plays a critical role in how your body absorbs other vital nutrients, such as iron and calcium. Both these nutrients are important for overall muscle and joint health.
2. Poor Hair Health
Your hair is comprised mostly of a protein known as keratin, and this mineral is important for hair health.
Protein is the building block of all of your cells—your hair follicles included. In fact, each and every strand of hair requires an adequate dose of protein to grow.
So, when you don’t get enough protein, your body starts conserving what little protein it has by limiting protein output. This in turn leads to hair loss.
Apart from hair loss, your hair is also likely to become dry and brittle.
3. Frequent Food Cravings
Another sign that your body lacks protein is frequent food cravings.
Craving sweets is especially common in people who are not eating the recommended amount of protein. The cravings may suddenly occur more frequently, and even after eating something sweet, you’re never quite satisfied.
This happens as less protein intake means you are probably eating a diet high in carbohydrates and/or sugar. Both carbohydrates and sugar can cause your blood sugar level to spike and make you feel hungry more frequently.
On the other hand, protein takes longer to digest, which makes you feel full and energized. This in turn evens out blood sugar highs and lows and thus helps regulate hunger.
Even though high-protein foods are sometimes higher in calories than carbohydrates, they are better at increasing satiety. This means protein-rich foods help prevent snacking and overeating, while also helping stabilize blood sugar.
4. Fluid Retention
Edema or fluid accumulation, especially in the lower body, is another sign of poor protein intake.
Protein plays an important role in keeping fluid from accumulating in tissues, especially in the feet and ankles, by holding salt and water in the blood vessels.
Without enough protein, these fluids can seep into surrounding tissues and lead to swelling on the lower legs and feet, which can be very uncomfortable.
You can tell you’re experiencing swelling due to fluid retention if the stretched or shiny skin retains a fingerprint after being pressed for a moment.
5. Lowered Immune Functioning
A low protein level in your diet may make you more susceptible to illnesses.
Protein helps keep your immune system functioning properly, as the immune cells are mostly made from proteins.
Protein makes up white blood cells, antibodies, blood proteins and a variety of immune molecules, including interleukins and cytokines. They all work together to attack foreign invaders, both biological and chemical.
Insufficient dietary protein can compromise your body’s ability to produce enough immune molecules and weaken your immunity. This may lead to more frequent and severe infections or illnesses.
6. Weak and Brittle Nails
Weak and brittle nails, as well as ridges in the nails, are some of the first signs that your body lacks protein.
Nails are comprised of laminated layers of a protein called keratin. So, for strong and healthy nails, proper protein intake is a must.
When your body lacks protein, it does not have the building blocks for growing strong nails. Plus, poor protein intake can cause white spots on your nails.
In addition, a shortage of protein may lead to more frequent hangnails as well as cracks and tears in the nails. This can make your nails more vulnerable to infections.
A foggy brain, or short bursts of mental energy followed by the fog, may be related to fluctuating blood sugar levels and lack of protein.
Protein is important for many aspects of healthy neurological functioning. In fact, brain fog, poor concentration, lack of motivation and trouble learning can indicate a poor protein level in the body.
Lack of protein can lead to poor balance of neurotransmitters, including dopamine, epinephrine, norepinephrine and serotonin. Neurotransmitters are synthesized in the brain using amino acids, the building blocks of proteins.
Enough protein in your diet can boost work performance as well as learning and motor skills, whereas inadequate protein consumption can do the opposite. In fact, a deficiency in amino acids may cause a variety of mood disorders, including depression and anxiety.
8. Poor Sleep
Your brain controls all of the hormones necessary for a good night’s sleep. When your body lacks the protein necessary to keep your brain healthy, it can lead to a hormonal imbalance that will ultimately affect your sleep.
Additionally, when your body and muscles ache due to poor protein intake, you will have a hard time sleeping.
A 2016 study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition reports that consumption of a greater proportion of energy from protein while dieting may improve sleep in overweight and obese adults.
Poor sleep is also linked to unstable blood sugar levels, which can occur due to poor protein intake. In fact, experts recommend eating foods with protein before bed to aid tryptophan and serotonin production, and to stabilize blood glucose levels.