6 Signs You’re Not Eating Enough Protein

Plus the best sources of both animal and plant-based protein.

By: Bianca Peyvan, MS, RDN

Let’s face it, there’s no shortage of protein-rich foods. Between protein bars, protein powders, and protein-filled snacks, it seems like all of our dietary protein needs are bound to be satisfied, right? Not necessarily! For starters, not all protein is created equal — there’s a difference between complete and incomplete proteins! Furthermore, it’s important to know how much protein you really need, versus how much protein you’re actually eating! 

So, with this in mind, let’s take a look at the role protein can play in supporting your health.

RELATED: Complete vs. Incomplete Protein: What’s the Difference?

What is Protein?

protein-rich foods

Proteins are made up of amino acids, which are the building blocks of life. We use proteins and amino acids to create various reactions in the human body, such as making enzymes, DNA, hormones, neurotransmitters, hair, blood, connective tissue, and of course, muscle. Knowing the important role protein plays within the body, it’s safe to assume a lack of protein could be problematic. 

Benefits of Protein 

Protein can impact everything from muscle mass to immune function and bone health. So, what happens when you don’t eat enough protein? Well, all of these areas suffer — slower recovery time, increased risk of injury, and susceptibility to illness. No fun! 

Protein, Satiety & Weight Management

Another important thing to note about protein is that it’s known to be the most satiating macronutrient. A research study found that consuming a protein-rich breakfast resulted in increased satiety throughout the morning. A lack of protein can have the opposite effect, leading to increased hunger and more cravings! 

The takeaway? Getting enough protein in our meals and snacks is a key part of keeping us nourished and satiated throughout the day. What’s more? Increased satiety is associated with improved appetite control, reduced sugar cravings, and weight loss, meaning increased protein intake can support weight management and healthy eating habits.

Read on to find out how to get enough protein and how much you need!

How Much Protein Do You Need?

While there’s certainly no shortage in protein, some of us may not be getting enough without even knowing it. Scientists don’t always agree on how much is enough; somewhere from 0.8 — 2 grams per kilogram of body weight is recommended depending on age and athletic status. 

If you’re recovering from an injury or suffering from gastrointestinal conditions such as low stomach acid or gut damage, you may require even more.

Calculate How Much Protein You Need 

Understanding how to get enough protein in your diet is essential. Here’s how to calculate how much you need!

Step #1: Calculate your weight in kg by taking your weight in pounds and dividing it by 2.2

Step #2: If you fall into the average range when it comes to recommended daily protein intake, then take your weight in kg and multiply that by 0.8 grams. 

Here’s an example of what this looks like: 

150 lbs divided by 2.2= 68 kg

68 kg times 0.8= 54 grams of protein per day 

Signs You’re Not Eating Enough Protein

plant-based protein

What happens when you don’t eat enough protein? Well, it depends on the severity of the protein deficiency.

True protein deficiency is typically seen in developing countries leading to serious conditions like Kwashiorkor or stunted growth in children. Less extreme symptoms, while more common, are easily dismissed or confused by something else. Find out what happens when you don’t eat enough protein and several telltale signs that you may not be getting enough.

#1 Muscle Loss & Weakness

Our muscle tissue is composed mostly of amino acids. Meaning, to grow and restore our muscles, we need adequate protein to spare our own muscles. If we’re deficient in protein, our body will resort to using stored lean muscle mass, which leads to muscle loss or wasting. It can also lead to muscle weakness that can result in pulling a muscle and muscle atrophy.

#2 Bone Injuries and Fractures

We require amino acids to build and repair not just our muscles but also our bones. Building bone density is closely related to how much muscle you have, as bones get stronger when muscle mass increases (as a way to meet muscular needs). Insufficient protein intake has been linked to lower bone mineral density, decreased bone strength, increased risk of fractures, weakened joints, and in extreme cases, Osteopenia.

#3 Slow Recovery

If you find you’re slow to recover from injuries or tough workouts, or your cuts and wounds are taking longer to heal, it could be related to your protein intake. A lack of protein slows down recovery time from injuries and wound healing. The same can be true about recovering from surgery, fractures or sprains, and other exercise-related injuries.

Getting adequate amounts of protein is especially important for post-workout recovery! Wondering what to eat after a tough gym sesh? Here are the best foods to feed your muscles. Hint: protein is one of them!

#4 Weak Nails, Skin & Hair

If you have weak and brittle nails, skin that is dry and flaky, or hair that is brittle and thinning, these may be early signs that your body is not getting enough protein. Skin is made of proteins such as keratin, collagen, and elastin, and hair is made up of keratin. When these proteins are lacking in the diet, your nails, skin, and hair pay the price.

#5 Poor Immune Function

Another consequence of not eating enough protein? Increased risk of sickness and illness. Proteins are essential in supporting the immune system by making antibodies that signal white blood cells to fight off intruders, bacteria, and viruses. Proteins also play a critical role in various detoxification pathways to transport waste and toxins. Even the master antioxidant, glutathione, is made of amino acids. So, make sure to eat enough protein, especially if you are prone to getting sick; otherwise, it could result in increased or repeat infections.

#6 Mind & Mood

Another area to be mindful of is your mood and mental health. A lack of protein could mean that your body cannot make enough hormones and neurotransmitters that relay information between cells and nerves, respectively. An example of this is serotonin and dopamine, which are made up of amino acids and regulate our mood and happiness. 

How to Get Enough Protein: Best Food Sources

The best sources of protein 

As we previously mentioned, not all protein is created equal! There’s a difference between complete and incomplete proteins, which is based on the protein source (i.e. animal or plant foods). Here’s what you need to know.

Animal Protein Sources

The best sources of protein include animal products like eggs, beef, poultry, pork, fish, shellfish, dairy such as cottage cheese, Greek yogurt, whey protein, and cheeses. 

These animal-based options are complete proteins, which means they have all nine essential amino acids your body needs and offer anywhere from 10 – 28 grams of protein per 3 oz portion. 

Animal Protein Hack 

If you eat animal-based proteins, getting enough protein in your diet is quite easy. But, if you’re looking for another easy way to up your protein intake without altering the taste of your food, try adding collagen or gelatin to your coffees and smoothies!

Some other ways to increase your animal-based protein intake?

  • Make a dip for your veggies using Greek yogurt, lemon, and herbs
  • Add extra eggs (or egg whites) to your morning breakfast 
  • Pre-prep a dozen hard-boiled eggs and keep them in your fridge for a quick snack

Plant-Based Protein Sources

Wondering if you can get enough protein if you don’t eat meat? Simply prioritize protein-rich plant foods!

The best plant sources of protein include tofu, tempeh, seitan, lentils, beans, whole grains, seeds, nuts, and even some vegetables like broccoli and kale in large quantities.

Keep in mind, plant-based proteins are not always complete proteins. This means you’ll need to put a bit more thought into how to get enough protein when planning your meals! To obtain a full amino acid profile on a plant-based diet, you’ll need to eat various plant-based protein sources (e.g., beans and rice) to avoid a lack of protein and create a complete source for your body to utilize.

Plant-based proteins offer significantly less protein than animal-based proteins, which means you will have to eat more of them to get adequate intake. With that said, plant-based proteins are much more sustainable and environmentally friendly compared to meat. And, getting enough protein on a plant-based diet is easier than you think! It just requires more attention to your food choices.

Plant-Based Protein Hack

Other great ways to sneak more plant-based protein could include adding hemp seeds to soups, tahini to vegetables, edamame to salads, and spirulina. Also, keep your eye out for pasta made of lentils and other legumes, as they are also great high protein additions.

Adding a scoop of plant-based protein powder to your smoothie is another great way to sneak in some added protein. Just be sure to check the ingredient list and avoid protein powders with added sugar and artificial ingredients. 

Final Thoughts

Now that you know what happens when you don’t eat enough protein, use these simple tips to avoid protein deficiency! Protein isn’t just for bodybuilders and professional athletes; it’s important for all of us striving for a healthy lifestyle. The good news is that getting enough protein doesn’t have to be overly complicated. There are endless animal and plant-based options to meet your protein needs. By including protein-rich foods in every meal, you are creating a foundation for a healthy mind and body.

Ready to see just how delicious healthy eating can be? Consider joining FitOn PRO for access to personalized meal plans and exclusive recipes to reach your fitness goals faster without counting calories and with foods you’ll love to eat.