Protein is an essential building block of life and plays important roles in many bodily functions, organs, building muscle mass, and even boosting energy. Simply put, you have to get that proper amount of protein in order to feel good from the inside out.
The term protein deficiency actually refers to a range of protein intake — from a slight deficiency to a mild deficiency called hypoproteinemia to a severe protein deficiency referred to as kwashiorkor.
While kwashiorkor is a “multifactorial syndrome” caused by severe protein deficiency and is generally seen in many “Central Africa and South Asia, where up to 30 [percent] of children get too little protein from their diet,” a mild protein deficiency “indicates a lack of body protein or a relative deficiency of one of several essential amino acids” and is “synonymous with a negative nitrogen balance.”
This mild deficiency referred to as hypoproteinemia is “a condition in which a person has very low levels of protein in the blood.” As the human body “cannot store protein long term for future use” we need to “consume enough protein every day to ensure the body gets enough to work correctly.”
Even though kwashiorkor is very rare in the Western world, mild protein deficiencies are commonly seen, especially with the rise of primarily plant-based eating. The plant-based world is rife with sources of protein, but for those transitioning between animal-based protein and plant-based protein, it’s important to know your sources and supplement appropriately.
Protein deficiency may not be common, yet it can “affect almost all aspects of body function … [and] as a result, it is associated with many symptoms.”
10 Signs of Protein Deficiency
While it may be easy to understand what protein deficiency is, it’s a bit harder to identify whether our bodies suffer from this deficiency or not. It’s always a good idea to take a look at your daily diet and make sure you’re consuming protein-rich foods. With that said, there are a handful of physical signs and symptoms that can also alert you to a protein deficiency.
1. Skin Issues
In severe cases of protein deficiency — such as kwashiorkor — the skin will exhibit signs of edema “characterized by swollen and puffy skin.” More moderate protein deficiencies can also be seen via skin issues including “flaky or splitting skin, [or] redness and patches of depigmented skin.”
2. Brittle Hair and Nails
When it comes to some of the physical signs of protein deficiency, pay close attention to your hair and nails! Protein is an “essential part of your hair and nails,” therefore if you protein deficient your nails may become brittle and your “hair can lose some of its luster, and may not be quite as thick as it used to be,” plus it may split much easier. On top of that, if these warning signs don’t trigger your spidey-senses, possible hair loss may do the trick. In order to “preserve protein stores” the human body “shuts down hair growth.”
3. Mood Changes
Amino acids aren’t simply “building blocks of protein,” but they are also “necessary for healthy brain function.” When you suffer a deficiency in protein, you also suffer from an amino acid deficiency, which has been “linked to depression, brain fog, sluggishness, and lack of focus.” This may manifest itself in severe irritability or increased depression.
4. Loss of Muscle Mass
It’s not too difficult to jump to the conclusion that protein deficiency — the building blocks of muscle mass — will lead to a loss of said muscle mass. This is because “muscles are your body’s largest reservoir of protein” and when you’re suffering a deficiency “the body tends to take protein from skeletal muscles to preserve more important tissues and body functions.” If protein deficiency is ignored it will lead to “muscle wasting over time.”
5. Increased Risk of Bone Fractures
A symptom that you don’t necessarily see, but definitely feel are bone fractures. If protein deficiency is left untended to for long enough, “our bodies borrow from other areas, including the storage in our skeletal muscle tissue” in order to transfer the protein to more essential organs and our brain. On top of the weakened skeletal structure, if you’ve also lost muscle mass, your bones will be “more susceptible to injuries like fractures and breaks.”
6. Trouble Fighting Infections and Healing
While the immune system is essential for fighting foreign invaders, it’s also a key player in healing infections. This means if you suffer from a protein deficiency, it can also knock down your immune system a couple of pegs. An impaired immune system “may increase the risk of severity of infections, a common symptom of severe protein deficiency.” This may also lead to recurring viral or bacterial infections. Plus, when it comes to protein and your immune system, it turns out “even a marginally low protein intake may impair” its function. Therefore, this may be one of the first symptoms you experience.
7. Increased Appetite
Milder forms of protein deficiency cause an increase in appetite, while a severe deficiency — such as kwashiorkors — has the opposite effect. As your body struggles to find sources of protein, it will attempt “to restore your protein status by increasing your appetite, encouraging you to find something to eat.” With that said, you may find that you’re craving “savory, high-calorie foods” rather than sugary treats.
8. Weight Gain
As a side effect of the increased appetite, you may find a slight or not so slight fluctuation in your weight. Unfortunately, “modern society offers unlimited access to savory, high-calorie foods,” therefore instead of recognizing the protein deficiency for what it is, we simply satisfy those cravings with the boundless food options available. On top of that, many of these foods have low amounts of proteins, so you’re still not fixing the deficiency and only increasing caloric intake.
9. Immune System Disruption
As we learned in the protein 101 section, protein is an essential component of a healthy immune system. Your immune system protects the body and helps “fight off foreign invaders like bacteria and viruses.” A protein deficiency can cause your immune system to be slightly compromised, which means a lot more sniffly noses and sore throats that just don’t go away.
10. Feeling Fatigued and Weak
You may think these issues are linked to the loss of muscle mass and it definitely is related, but there’s more to it. Protein is a macronutrient meaning it provides energy for the body. What happens when you don’t have enough protein? Weakness and fatigue. How does it work? Turns out protein is a “component of hemoglobin, which is present in our red blood cells and transports oxygen throughout the body” and when these oxygen levels drop it “could cause weakness or shortness of breath.”
The best way to make sure you steer clear of a protein deficiency is to simply add lots of plant-based protein sources to your weekly regimen. And, there’s a slew of options to choose from including almonds and peanuts, oats, broccoli and Brussels sprouts, quinoa, beans, lentils, tofu, and pumpkin seeds, just to mention a few of my favorites. Get your daily dose of protein starting with one of these delightful, protein-filled recipes!
The most important part of plant-based protein is variety! This helps ensure that you’re getting complete proteins — a protein source that has all nine essential amino acids. This Rice and Beans recipe by Nita Ragoonanan combines two sources of protein — rice and beans — offering a healthy daily dose of protein. Plus, you’ll get healthy fats, vitamins, minerals, and lots of dietary fiber!
Tofu is one of the best plant-based sources of protein available. A half a cup of firm tofu has over 19 grams of protein! This Almond Butter Tofu Stew recipe by Jackie Sobon not only provides that much-needed source of tofu-based protein, but it’s also rich in a slew of colorful vegetables meaning loads of antioxidants, vitamins, and minerals.
Aside from tofu, lentils are an excellent source of protein. One cup of cooked lentils has over 17 grams of protein! Chickpeas are also a wonderful protein-rich food with one cup offering over 14 grams of protein. Therefore, this Chickpea & Lentil Salad recipe by Stephanie Davies is a slam dunk of plant-based protein that is easily incorporated into the day either as a small snack, a filling lunch, or a side dish at dinner!
We also highly recommend downloading our Food Monster App, which is available for iPhone, and can also be found on Instagram and Facebook. The app has more than 15,000 plant-based, allergy-friendly recipes, and subscribers gain access to new recipes every day. Check it out!
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