Protein is an essential macronutrient that not only provides energy, but is also an essential building block for muscles, the immune system, and various bodily functions and organs. Therefore, if you’re not getting enough of this wonderful nutrient, it can wreak some awful havoc. From hair and nail growth to muscle mass to your immune system, getting the proper amount of quality protein in your diet is incredibly important. Let’s take a look at protein deficiency and how to make sure you’re getting enough of this vital nutrient!
We can’t really talk about protein deficiency if we don’t know what protein is and what it does for our body.
Protein is a macronutrient, of which there are three — fat, protein, and carbohydrates — all of which have “their own specific roles and functions in the body and supply us with calories for energy.” You need all three macronutrients for a balanced diet and a healthy body and since each macronutrient can be found in almost all food items, it’s pretty easy to make sure you’re not missing out!
When it comes to protein, you’ll want to take a bit of a closer look under the microscope.
Protein is created from a series of building blocks called “amino acids, which are organic compounds made of carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, oxygen, or sulfur.” When you eat protein-rich foods, they are broken down to help “fuel muscle mass, which helps metabolism.” Yes, everything you heard about protein and building muscle is true! Protein is essential for building muscle mass.
All About Protein Deficiency
Alright, now that we know what protein is and how it benefits our bodies, it’s probably easier to understand how a deficiency of this essential macronutrient can be incredibly harmful. When we say deficiency, we’re talking about a lack or shortage of protein. This doesn’t necessarily mean you’re not getting enough in your diet — even though this is the most common reason for a protein deficiency — but it can also refer to an imbalance “when your intake is unable to meet your body’s requirements” due to a health condition.
It may seem like a rare health issue, yet an “estimated one billion people worldwide suffer from inadequate protein intake.” Take into consideration countries where there is a lack of quality food or food in general. For instance, “the problem is especially severe in Central Africa and South Asia, where up to 30 percent of children get too little protein from their diet.” Protein deficiency also seems to be an issue here in the states. A recent Medical News Today article entitled US adults do not consume enough protein actually focuses on the fact that many adults, as they age, are not getting enough protein. Even though “true protein deficiency is uncommon in the Western World, some people get very low amounts from their diet.”
Protein deficiency leads to “changes in body composition that develop over a long period of time, such as muscle wasting.” Yet, severe forms of protein deficiency can occur, the most lethal referred to as kwashiorkor. Also referred to as “edematous malnutrition,” kwashiorkor is a “nutritional disorder most often seen in regions experiencing famine … [and] … is a form of malnutrition caused by a lack of protein in the diet.”
While kwashiorkor is rarely seen in the united states, its related less severe counterpart of simple protein deficiency is seen from time to time. Most cases of protein deficiency are seen in those suffering from “anorexia, cancer, or, in the case of severe malnutrition, undiagnosed Crohn’s disease,” yet it’s also been diagnosed in “vegans or people who follow a raw food diet,” especially those people who haven’t done the research to properly compensate for the protein loss of animal-based products.
Most protein deficiency symptoms happen internally, but there are a few things to look out for externally. While there are many other health concerns — of which we’ll talk about next — these are the physical signs that you can look for in order to make sure you’re getting the proper amount of protein.
A few symptoms of protein deficiency include edema, —which is seen only in truly severe cases of protein deficiency and is characterized by “swollen and puffy skin” caused by “reduced human serum albumin levels” that causes “fluid to accumulate in tissues, causing swelling” — skin, hair, and nail growth issues, — when you don’t get enough of this macronutrient it can lead to “hair thinning, faded hair color, hair loss (alopecia) and brittle nails” — and an increased appetite and intake of calories — given that protein is one of the best nutrients to satiate hunger and make you feel full longer.
Health Concerns Caused by Protein Deficiency
While I’ve mentioned physical symptoms of protein deficiency, there are quite a few health concerns that go far beyond the physical and affect the body internally. Protein is an essential macronutrient and building block that plays a role in various bodily functions. Therefore, it makes sense that when you don’t get enough of this nutrient, a variety of things go awry.
You may be familiar with fatty liver in regards to overconsumption of alcohol, — referred to as alcoholic fatty liver — yet there is another type of fatty liver that has nothing to do with alcohol consumption. This type of fatty liver — called hepatic steatosis — occurs with the accumulation of fat in liver cells, “which can cause liver inflammation … [and] … damage your liver … [creating] scarring,” as well as, in severe cases, “lead to liver failure.”
Unfortunately, researchers haven’t identified why protein deficiency causes fatty liver, “but studies suggest that an impaired synthesis of fat-transporting proteins, known as lipoproteins, may contribute to the condition.”
Loss of Muscle Mass
One of the most obvious signs of protein deficiency is the loss of muscle mass. As protein is one of the main ingredients in order to build muscle mass — and “muscles are your body’s largest reservoir of protein” — it’s logical that you’d lose that muscle mass without enough of the nutrient. If you suffer from protein deficiency, your body will “take protein from skeletal muscles to preserve more important tissues and body functions … [and] … as a result, lack of protein leads to muscle wasting over time.”
Protein deficiency also leads to a greater risk of bone fractures, as protein is an essential nutrient that builds bones and keeps them strong throughout your life. Studies performed in postmenopausal women found that an increased amount of protein, specifically “20 grams of protein supplements per day for half a year slowed bone loss by 2.3 [percent].” Another study in postmenopausal women found that “higher protein intake was associated with a lower risk of hip fractures.”
Weakened Immune System
Turns out that protein is also essential for a strong immune system, which is why a protein deficiency actually leads to a weakened immune system. This is mostly seen via an increased severity of infections as the body is unable to fight off foreign invaders with the same veracity. In fact, even “marginally low protein intake may impair immune function,” as one study deduced when participants followed a low-protein diet for only nine weeks and discovered significantly reduced immune system responses.
Plant-Based Sources of Complete Proteins
In order to avoid protein deficiency, especially on a plant-based diet, it’s important to actively integrate complete proteins on a daily basis. When I say “complete protein”, I’m actually referring “to amino acids, the building blocks of protein,” of which there are “20 different amino acids that can form a protein and nine that your body can’t produce on its own.” Those nine need to sourced from food. This is where either consuming complete proteins or combining foods to create complete proteins comes in handy! Luckily, if you eat a varied plant-based diet then you’re probably already getting what you need. If you’re worried, here are a few wonderful sources of complete proteins to integrate into your kitchen.
Quinoa is not only a great gluten-free grain substitute, but it’s also a wonderfully versatile ingredient to use in everything from baking to porridge to puffed cereal to savory hearty stews to a simple plain side dish. It also happens to be an ancient grain that offers a powerful dose of complete proteins. One cup of cooked quinoa offers up 8 grams of protein! On top of that, quinoa is almost essential for any vegan kitchen as it’s also packed with “fiber, iron, magnesium, and manganese.”
Get your daily dose of quinoa with a few of these recipes: Vegan Lemon Blueberry Superfood Granola, Peanut Butter Quinoa Bark, Fermented Quinoa Beet Bowl, Roasted Vegetables with Quinoa and Maple Tahini Sauce, Mexican Quinoa Bowl, or these Black Bean Burgers.
Oh, chia! You’re so versatile in the kitchen, so sweet and delicate to look at, and you seem to get everywhere every time I use you. Chia seeds are a staple in my kitchen, from pudding to backing to sprinkling them on a salad. And, yes, these teeny tiny almost microscopic seeds seem to wind up all over the floor and counter. Of course, chia seeds are one of the go-to sources of complete protein as well! For 100 grams of chia seed, you’ll get a whopping 15 grams of protein. Plus, these little seeds also offer a powerful dose of fiber with that same 100 grams offering around 37 grams!
Work chia seeds into your weekly regimen with these super simple, protein-rich recipes: Seeds and Greens Kaniwa Salad, 5-Ingredient Chia Pudding, Fig and Almond Bars, Glow Buns Energy Balls, Peanut Butter and Jelly Chia Pudding, or these Chia Seed and Banana Breakfast Cookies.
Buckwheat is somewhat new to the western world, yet is an ancient seed. Yep, it’s actually not wheat and happens to be one of the best gluten-free substitutes that’s rich in nutrients, great for heart, and is a great plant-based source of complete proteins. On top of that, buckwheat has been shown to help reduce blood pressure, lower blood cholesterol, and control blood glucose levels. Basically, it’s got all the goods to keep your blood levels balanced and healthy! In one cup of cooked buckwheat, you’ll get 6 grams of complete protein!
While you may think you’re stuck to soba noodles if you’re not crafty in the kitchen, — cuz, well, those are just so friggin’ easy to cook! — there are actually many forms of buckwheat to play around with including buckwheat groats (just like oats!), creamed buckwheat, and flour!
Here are some simple buckwheat-based recipes to make you feel at home with this new ingredient: Apple Cinnamon Buckwheat Porridge, Buckwheat Pancakes, 30-Minute Spicy Peanut Soup, Buckwheat Granola, Strawberry Chocolate Chip Buckwheat Muffins, or this Date and Walnut Banana Bread.
Soy is one of the healthiest plant-based foods you can find on this planet! While there are a few stipulations due to industrial processing — always go for the cleanest options available including sprouted, non-GMO, and organic — if you’re looking for a quick, simple, and super tasty addition to your diet regimen that’s also packing a powerful protein punch, try integrating tofu. In a half-cup serving of tofu, you get a whopping 12 grams of complete protein!
Cooking tofu may take a few times to really get it down — whether you like to sautee, bake, or simply love the stuff raw — yet once you get your rhythm, it’ll be the easiest go-to, filling ingredient in the fridge. Here are a few recipes to start you off: Roasted Tofu and Grilled Seitan Dumplings, Lasagna with Spinach and Mushrooms, Tofu Bolognese, Lemon Garlic No-Oil Tofu, Tofu Green Bean Stir-Fry, or these Teriyaki Tofu Steaks.
While beans are protein-rich and rice (preferably brown) is nutrient-rich, when you combine these two stellar plant-based foods, you get a complete protein! For one cup of rice and beans, you’ll receive about 8 grams of complete protein. It also doesn’t hurt that these two ingredients go hand-in-hand naturally on so many levels. Of course, if you’re not a bean fan you can always substitute chickpeas or lentils!
You probably already have your favorite go-to rice and beans recipe, whether it’s stuffed in a burrito, comingling in a hardy stew, or spiced up on your plate, but here are a few to add to your repertoire: Spicy Chipotle Rice and Beans, Rice and Bean Burgers, Cilantro, Lime, and Black Bean Rice, Beans and Rice, White Bean Wild Rice Hash, or this Protein Fried Rice with Mung Bean Sprouts and Black Beans.
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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