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5 Signs of Protein Deficiency You Should Never Ignore

It's critical to ensure that you're getting enough protein each day. If you think you're lacking, see the symptoms of protein deficiency.

Think about all of the foods that you eat in a typical day—do you know which ones are high in protein? Or better yet, do you know about how much protein is in a handful of foods you tend to eat the most of? While these may not seem like important things for you to know, having some knowledge of how much protein you're eating per day is more important for your health than you may think. There is such a thing as a protein deficiency, which is why it's critical to be aware of the symptoms. The best way to prevent even slight insufficient protein intake is by knowing roughly how much of it you should be consuming each day.

Toby Smithson, MS, RDN, LD, CDE, author of Diabetes Meal Planning and Nutrition spoke to us about protein deficiency, as well as common signs that indicate you may not be eating enough of the macronutrient.

What are some of the key signs of protein deficiency?

"Protein deficiency is rare in the U.S. population," says Smithson. "Individuals in developing countries are at greatest risk."

The most extreme type of protein deficiency is kwashiorkor, symptoms of which include a bloated abdomen, fatty liver, and a compromised immune system.

That being said, there are certain groups of people who might not be consuming enough protein each day. These may include vegetarians, vegans, those who have eating disorders, and those who have undiagnosed Chron's disease.

These are the symptoms that could indicate insufficient protein intake:

  • Edema. "Swelling or edema in legs, feet, and hands may be a sign you're not getting enough protein," says Smithson.
  • Issues with hair, skin, and nails. All of these rely on protein to stay healthy. Skin can become dry or scaly while the hair may thin and nails can become brittle.
  • Feeling like you are always hungry. "Protein helps to keep you feeling full, so if you're always hungry, you may not be including enough protein in meals to tide you over to the next meal," she says.
  • Weakened immune system. A deficit in protein can cause impaired immune function, making you more susceptible to infection.
  • Loss of muscle mass. If not enough dietary protein is consumed regularly, muscle mass can begin to deplete. This can especially occur in elderly populations, as muscle mass is already inherently on the decline. Smithson says, "After middle age, adults lose an average of about 3 percent of muscle every year."

Elderly people may also be at risk of sarcopenia, a muscle-wasting disease, and not eating enough protein only exacerbates the condition. Some 10 percent of adults over the age of 50 are believed to be affected by sarcopenia.

How much protein should the typical person strive to eat per day?

The Dietary Reference Intake (DRI) is pretty modest at just 0.8 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight or 0.36 grams per pound. However, activity level and age can also play a factor in how much protein you need each day. For example, a 140-pound woman who is relatively active needs a bare minimum of around 50 grams of protein each day. The best way to determine a rough estimate of how much protein you need each day is to use the USDA DRI Calculator.

If you're very active or an athlete, your protein requirements will look different. "Athletes need significantly more protein to help strengthen muscles after intense bouts of exercise," says Smithson.

For athletes, The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics recommends consuming 1.2 to 2.0 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight each day.

"For example, a 180-pound athlete would need to consume 98-164 grams of protein [per] day," she says.

It's critical that athletes space out their protein consumption evenly throughout the day in order to maintain (and build) muscle mass. Protein also helps to promote recovery post-workout.

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How much protein should you eat per meal?

Just as it's important for athletes to consume adequate protein throughout the entirety of the day, it's equally as important for those who are moderate to regularly active to space out their protein consumption as well. In fact, Smithson says you should aim to consume between 25 and 30 grams of protein at each meal.

"Many individuals try to put all their protein in one meal—skimp on protein in the morning and load up in the evening. However, the best way to support your muscles is to spread it out more evenly so the body has adequate protein throughout the day," says Smithson.

Protein also boosts satiety, which is another incentive to evenly distribute consumption of it between all meals and even snacks. It is possible though to consume too much protein in one sitting.

Registered dietitian Gabrielle Mancella explained to us that the body cannot physically store more than 30 grams of protein per hour, meaning that excess protein is not properly utilized. Often, excess protein is removed from the blood by the kidneys and excreted through urine.

What are some of the best ways to incorporate protein into your diet?

While eating 50+ grams of protein a day may sound daunting, there are many easy ways you can include protein into both meals and snacks.

Smithson says that adding almonds to Greek yogurt or cottage cheese is a great way to get additional protein. Adding nut butter, protein powder, and yogurt to smoothies also help increase protein intake.

Here are a few extra ways you can add more protein to your diet.

  • When you have a salad, add protein sources like chopped chicken and chickpeas.
  • Serve beans as a side dish to ground beef or ground turkey tacos.
  • Choose quinoa—one of the few grains that offer protein— as a side dish or salad base instead of pasta or rice. Teff, spelt, amaranth, and sorghum are other grains that offer protein.
  • For a snack, include a handful of almonds with a piece of fruit or spread almond butter on apple slices or a banana. Compared to all tree nuts, almonds rank the highest in protein and fiber.
  • Eggs are an inexpensive and rich source of protein. Have them for breakfast or try hard-boiled eggs as a snack.

Hopefully, now you have a good sense of how to sneak more protein into your diet so that you never come close to having a protein deficiency.

Cheyenne Buckingham
Cheyenne Buckingham is the former news editor of Eat This, Not That! Read more about Cheyenne
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