Picture this: It’s 10am. You’ve gotten into your work routine at your desk (either in the office or at home) and you find yourself reaching for some snacks. Or you’ve noticed more hair in the shower drain than usual. Or you feel surprisingly low on energy during one of those zoom call meetings despite no major physical activity as such. If any of the above seems familiar, you might be suffering from protein deficiency.
This happens due to a host of reasons that range from simply lack of awareness of the importance of protein (a recent survey revealed a whopping 93% Indians were about their daily protein requirements and 73% of urban population is protein deficient) to the quality of protein. That’s because a majority of protein in the Indian diet is derived from cereals, which offer relatively low-quality protein and are limiting in lysine, an amino acid that’s important for the immune system.
We need sufficient protein in the diet because it supplies indispensable amino acids that our bodies cannot synthesize on their own.
The recommended intake for a healthy adult is 46 grams of protein a day for women and 56 grams for men. And while protein malnutrition for an average adult in developed countries is rare, the chances of it going undetected are high if proper attention isn’t paid to the early signs. Teenagers who are habituated to an improper diet and elderly people whose appetites often slacken with age have higher chances of falling short on protein intake.
Here are the six important signs of protein deficiency to look out for –
Loss of muscle mass
If the body is deprived of essential dietary protein, it tends to take it from the muscles, which can lead to loss of muscle mass. Since protein is the building block of your muscles, eating adequate amounts of protein helps maintain your muscle mass and prevents muscle wasting. So if you indulge in any form of exercise or walking or cycling, it’s critical that you need to eat protein. Doing so will provide your body with the essential building blocks used to make and maintain muscle, bone, skin and other tissues.
Larger appetite and heightened craving
If you find yourself raiding the snack drawer every 30 minutes or so despite having breakfast, you could be suffering from protein malnutrition and it might bode well to relook your first meal of the day. Simply put, protein fuels you. It’s one of the key sources of calories in addition to carbs and fats. When you aren’t getting an adequate amount of protein, your body tends to experience rapid spikes and crashes of insulin that lead to cravings of carb and sugar heavy foods. Proteins take longer to digest than carbohydrates, thus helping stabilize blood sugar and slower digestion – a plus for anyone trying to lose weight.
Hair, nail and skin problems
If you notice that your hair has started to become thinner or if it’s shedding more than usual, it might be time to look at your protein intake. The hair on our head is made up almost exclusively of a protein called keratin – so naturally, if you’re suffering from a protein deficiency, you might start to see changes to your…umm…source of pride and joy. When there is an insufficient amount of protein in the body, the hair growth cycle may be altered to ensure that other vital functions continue. Similarly, nails and skin are made up of proteins such as elastin and collagen respectively and inadequate protein in the diet can lead to brittle fingernails and dry and flaky skin.
It’s difficult for the body to maintain a healthy brain without adequate protein. “Your brain has the ability to control all of the hormones which are necessary for a good night’s sleep,” according to David Weiner, a training and nutrition specialist from Freeletics, a leading provider of AI-based Fitness and Lifestyle Coaching. “When your body lacks the protein necessary to maintain a healthy brain, it can lead to a hormonal imbalance which will ultimately have an effect on your sleep.”
It’s quite common for people to feel bloated sometimes due to indigestion or after a large meal. However, if you experience frequent bloating, without an apparent cause, then it could be because of a protein deficiency. Turns out, protein is also responsible for maintaining the water balance in your cells, which means that if you don’t have sufficient protein, your cells can release too much of their water, which in turn can cause irregular bloating.
Compromised immune system
Lack of protein may increase your risk of infection due to reduced concentrations of plasma amino acids. Amino acids play a role in regulating immune cells and protein is crucial for producing white blood cells, antibodies, and blood proteins. Ultimately, they are all important to help fight off infections ranging from a common cold to something more serious. So not eating enough protein compromises your body’s ability to do this effectively and results in a weaker immune system, which could be even more harmful in a pandemic situation.