Shocking Effects of Not Eating Enough Protein

What Exactly Is Protein? 

Protein is not only essential to building muscle. It’s also essential to your overall health. Protein is the building block of amino acid.

It’s involved in nearly every process inside of your body and is essential to maintaining your body’s proper functionality – from making up immune molecules and hormones to synthesizing additional proteins. It is the nutrient that not only builds stronger muscles but also supplies energy, repairs cell damage and speeds recovery after the inevitable crash.

What Are The Symptoms of Low Protein Intake? 

Although protein is being promoted on the packaging of every energy bar, cereal, and snack some of us are just not getting enough protein. Because protein is such an essential building block in our body’s system the effects of not getting enough protein are pretty shocking. Below are some of the most common symptoms of low protein intake. 

Low Protein Intake Symptom #1 – Rarely Feeling Full & Satisfied   

Protein Deficiency Feeling Full

When we don’t feel full, we get the urge to eat. Overeating and eating the wrong foods cause weight gain and a variety of other health problems. Consuming protein helps us reach satiety, a feeling of satisfaction and fullness.

Research shows that foods high in protein are far more satiating than foods containing large amounts of other nutrients. It takes longer to digest protein than it does carbohydrates. So, a protein-rich meal will keep hunger at bay for hours compared to a meal made up of mostly carbs.

If you find that you’re always hungry after each meal or are experiencing an increase in cravings, look at your diet. You may not be eating enough protein. Try and add more protein-rich foods to your diet, especially when it comes to breakfast. A breakfast high in protein can help keep satiated all the way through until lunch.

Low Protein Intake Symptom #2 – Intense Sugar Cravings  

Protein Deficiency sugar cravings

If you’re low on protein, one of the first symptoms you might experience is sugar craving. Because protein intake helps keep your blood sugar levels steady, you’ll crave sweets when you aren’t getting enough protein. Instead of reaching for a candy bar or donut, think about if the food you’ve eaten already had any protein — if not, consuming some protein will help you feel full and get rid of that need for sweets. In fact, eating protein has been shown to reduce cravings and late-night snacking.

A study published in the Nutrition Journal had participants either skip breakfast, eat a normal breakfast (15% of calories from protein) or a high-protein breakfast (40% of calories from protein) for 7 days in a row. On the seventh day, dopamine levels and food cravings were looked at. Those who ate breakfast had a decline in sweet cravings, while the breakfast-skippers saw an increase in cravings. However, those who followed the high-protein breakfasts saw an increase in dopamine.

What does dopamine have to do with it? It’s the chemical in your brain that regulates food as motivation or a reward. So these high-protein breakfast eaters associated their breakfast as a reward, which resulted in fewer cravings during the day.

Low Protein Intake Symptom #3 – Muscle Loss or Muscle Weakness After Exercise 

Protein Deficiency Muscle Loss

If you’re chronically not eating enough protein – as in multiple days or weeks at a time – your body will turn to your muscles. Slowly, it will begin to break them down as a source of amino acids. Essential amino acids are the building blocks of protein. They help build lean muscle mass and repair and grow cells and tissue. So if you’re lacking amino acids, you will likely experience a loss of muscle mass and strength.

Studies have consistently demonstrated the benefits of protein supplementation post-exercise for recovery. Protein has been found to reduce muscle soreness and damage, plus to improve muscle function following exercise.

How does protein do this? During exercise, your muscle fibers are damaged and a series of actions must happen to repair them. Using dietary amino acids, the cells of your muscle can grow together and create new muscle fibers.

Or, in the case of weight lifting or muscle building, the cells can attach to damaged muscle fibers, which increases the muscle protein and can build the size of the fiber. The result is a renewed muscle protein and brand-new muscle cells. However, you need high-quality protein from your diet to give your muscles the amino acids required for this process.

Low Protein Intake Symptom #4 – Dips In Energy & Stamina Through The Day

Protein Deficiency energy (1)

A heavy training schedule combined with work or family life can wear you down. You may feel tired during the day, and it can be hard to isolate exactly why. The answer might be not enough protein. Having energy lulls, which can feel like fatigue or sluggishness during the day is one subjective sign. 

In addition to its role in recovery, protein helps stabilize blood sugars. No doubt you’ve heard the term “hangry,” which refers to that uncomfortable combination of hungry, tired, and cranky.

When our blood sugars get too low, one of the results is hunger. In turn, that often leads to overeating, which can cause our bodies to store excess fat. If you feel like you’re constantly swinging between extreme hunger and overeating, adding protein to your diet might help mellow things out.

Low Protein Intake Symptom #5 – Noticeable Bloating & Excess Weight Gain 

Protein Deficiency Weight Gain

Swelling or puffiness of the skin, aka edema, is caused by the retention of excess fluid in the body. While it’s caused by many conditions, one of them is not eating enough protein. Proteins in the blood help hold onto salt and water inside the blood vessels, so fluid doesn’t leak into the surrounding tissues. When protein is too low, fluid is retained, causing edema.

In fact, if you are experiencing noticeable weight gain increasing your protein intake may be a great way to curb that. A study published in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition found that women who increased protein intake to 30% (from 15%) of their total calories, ended up eating 441 fewer calories per day. The result? They lost an average of 11 pounds in just 12 weeks!

Also, according to a study of 158 people conducted in 2008, ingesting whey protein may help to increase fat burning while preventing muscle loss. The study divided 158 participants into two groups. Both groups reduced their daily calorie consumption by 500 calories. As a result, both groups lost weight. However, those who also used whey protein lost “significantly” more fat and lost less muscle than those who did not receive whey protein.

How Much Protein Should You Get? 

Protein Deficiency Intake

Current guidelines, established by the Institute of Medicine in 2002, recommend adults 19 years of age and older consume 10 to 35 percent of their daily calories from protein. That’s about 200 to 700 calories from protein for a 2,000-calorie diet. 

Another way to calculate how much protein you need each day is to multiply 0.8 grams of protein per kilogram of your body weight. With a little math, this translates to 54 grams of protein for a 150-pound woman, or 65 grams for a 180-pound man.

Animal Protein Vs Vegetarian Protein

The quality of a protein source depends on the amount and types of amino acids it contains. And the foods, or food combinations, that you eat in a day need to contain all of the essential amino acids the body uses. Neither plant nor animal protein is better for bones; they’re just different. And they offer a different set of nutrients — so you should get both. 

Complete Vs Incomplete Proteins

Protein is available in a variety of dietary sources. The options are endless! That includes both animal and plant origins. Typically, all dietary animal protein sources are considered complete proteins. Complete meaning it contains all of the essential amino acids we talked about at the beginning of this post.

Proteins from vegetable sources are typically incomplete and lack one or two of the essential amino acids, however, there are a few that are complete. So if you are someone (vegetarian or vegan) who chooses plant proteins, it’s important to get a variety of fruits, vegetables, grains, and legumes to ensure you get all of the essential amino acids needed.

The Best Complete Proteins For Every Diet 

Carnivorous Diets – Skinless Chicken Breast

Protein Deficiency Chicken

A 3.5-ounce serving of cooked chicken or turkey breast has around 30 grams of protein. Skip dark meat cuts like drumsticks and thighs to get the leanest meat. White meat includes the breasts, breast tenderloins (tenders) and wings.

Also, don’t eat the skin — 3.5 ounces of roasted chicken breast with the skin has 200 calories and 8 grams of fat, while the same amount of skinless, roasted chicken breast has 165 calories and 3.5 grams of fat. So better just stick to a boneless, skinless chicken or turkey breast to get the most amount of protein with the least amount of unhealthy fat. 

Pescetarian Diets – Whitefish 

Protein Deficiency White Fish (1)

Most white-fleshed fish are super lean and excellent protein sources, providing under 3 grams of fat, around 20–25 grams of protein and 85–130 calories per 3.5-ounce plain, cooked serving. Examples of very lean white fish include cod, haddock, pollock, flounder, halibut, tilapia, and orange roughy. 

These whitefish generally have only 10–25% as much omega-3 fat as higher-fat, higher-calorie, darker-fleshed fish like coho or sockeye salmon. Therefore, it’s good to eat both types of fish. 

Vegan & Vegetarian Diets – Hemp Seeds

Protein Deficiency Hemp

Although these are beginning to garner increased attention, hemp deserves even more recognition for being one of the most nutrient-dense food sources around. This superfood is full of vitamin E, iron, omega-3, and omega-6 acids, and plenty of fiber to nourish you with more than just protein.


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Lesley George

Lesley is a content writer and community manager at Shape.
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