The Power of Protein and Symptoms of Protein Deficiency

Protein is a rich source of amino acids needed in the body for several processes from structural support to transportation of oxygen into lungs and tissues and beyond.

Sources of protein

The Many Roles of Protein

From a structural standpoint, amino acids are needed to fuel and support the musculoskeletal system as well as on a tissue and cellular level everything from cellular membranes to hair and nails. It is important to note that amino acids act as a major building block for almost every biological process in the body. For instance; amino acids are also the building blocks of neurotransmitters such as dopamine and serotonin. For this reason, individuals who are deficient in protein are also deficient in neurotransmitters that can drive hunger and cravings leading to weight gain and can even impact mood, anxiety, and sleep. Amino acids are also a major component of antibodies needed for immune function so it is ideal to ensure proper protein intake to support immune function.

Protein & Body Composition 

The body has the ability to store sugar and fat, however it does not have the ability to store protein. In fact, the only way the body can “store” or “save” amino acids from protein is through skeletal muscle mass.  When we do not feed our body adequate protein like during times of starvation i.e. dieting or extreme calorie restriction our body is forced to break down our muscles to provide amino acids for other processes in the body. A breakdown of muscle leads to a decrease in metabolic rate, meaning we have to eat even less and work even harder to maintain or lose weight. This is often what actually happens in the vicious cycle of weight loss and regain from calorie restriction alone where the body breaks down muscle to conserve energy in starvation mode and metabolism ultimately suffers! 

Compared to stored body fat which does not impact your metabolism in a positive way, the muscle in your body is actually very metabolically active. In fact, each pound of muscle burns up to 50 extra calories a day, meaning that a net gain of 10 lbs of muscle leads to burn of an extra 3,500 calories per week! One pound of fat is equivalent to 3,500 calories which means gaining 10 lbs of muscle leads to burning of an extra pound of fat per week while at rest and with no additional change of diet or activity. An added bonus of ensuring adequate protein intake is that your body actually uses energy or burns calories to break protein down into individual amino acids and then to build it back up into amino acid chain--this is known as thermogenesis. Your body will only actually absorb 80 calories of a 100 calorie protein snack while it will absorb 100% of the calories from pure carbohydrates as it does not have to work as hard to break them down. 

6 Primary Symptoms of Protein Deficiency

HUNGER

Constant or frequent physical and or emotional hunger is often a sign we are not fueling our body properly, especially if this hunger is happening after meals or frequently throughout the day regardless of snacking or skipping meals. Protein is needed to promote signals of satiety to the brain and stabilize blood sugar.  Precious amino acids from protein are needed for many biological processes in the body as well. Ensure adequate protein by aiming for 20-30 grams at each meal and 5-10g at snacks.

MUSCLE LOSS

Fatigued muscle, increased body fat and loss of muscle can all be signs of inadequate protein intake as amino acids from protein are the building blocks of muscle. When the diet is low in protein the body is forced to break down muscle mass in order to gain amino acids to use for various processes in the body. Prevent muscle mass loss by aiming for 4-6 oz of biological protein at meals and ensuring repletion of amino acids post-workout with shake or smoothie made with my Naturally Nourished Grassfed Whey.

DEPRESSION

Remember amino acids such as tryptophan or tyrosine act as precursors to neurotransmitters like serotonin and dopamine that can lead to depression and changes in mood and anxiety when off balance. Ensure adequate protein intake at meals and snacks to promote a positive mood and prevent cravings.

FATIGUE

A deficiency in protein can certainly lead to both muscle fatigue and brain fog or fatigue. As mentioned above inadequate protein can promote muscle wasting leading to muscle cramps and unfavorable shifts in body composition. Amino acids such as glutamine are used alongside glucose in the muscle for fuel. Also as mentioned above, amino acids are needed to build neurotransmitters involved in cognitive function and memory as well as brain fog.

HAIR LOSS

Keep in mind both collagen and keratin are the main components of hair and both of these are comprised of amino acids from protein. Inadequate dietary intake can certainly lead to hair loss as the body needs amino acids such as cysteine, lysine, arginine and methionine to form hair. If hair loss is an issue consider also working with Collagen Peptides which are naturally found in bone broth (see our recipe here) and is a great source of amino acids to promote hair, skin, and nail growth.

FLUID RETENTION

Protein is necessary to maintain adequate balance of fluid in and outside of the cells. Without proper protein coming from the diet the body often will retain fluid on the outside of cells causing both fluid retention or edema particularly around the abdomen and dehydration of the cells. Ensure proper water balance and reduce fluid retention by aiming for 20-35 grams of healthily sourced biological protein with each meal.  

Why I Go Higher Protein With Most Keto Clients

You may have heard that too much protein can kick you out of ketosis and while this is true with excessive amounts due to a process called transanimation, much of the conventional advice on keto macros limits protein too much! I am constantly rescuing clients from hair loss and muscle wasting when they are trying to apply that perfect pie chart of macros and their protein is falling in the 40-50g range. I advocate for a higher protein ketogenic approach with about 25-30% of total calories coming from protein, maybe even upwards of 35% in those with high exercise output! Learn more in my Food-as-Medicine Ketosis Program

At a bare minimum, I recommend 60g of biological protein daily to support lean body mass and prevent the detrimental effects as mentioned above. Biological protein can generally be thought of as 1oz=7g, so this could mean 3 eggs at breakfast or lunch (3 x 7 = 21g protein) plus 6oz chicken, fish or steak (6 x 7=42g protein) at dinner. 

Personally, I notice muscle wasting and aches in my large muscle groups when I dip below 70-75g protein daily. Incorporating a daily shake with a scoop of my Grassfed Whey can be a super helpful way to boost protein intake and ensure you are hitting your protein goals!