No matter your dietary preferences, your body needs protein to function. This is especially true if you’re an avid exerciser. In fact, the recommended daily allowance (RDA) for protein increases from around 60 grams of protein for the 150-pound sedentary adult to around 90 grams for the 150-pound active adult. Protein plays a key role in building and maintaining muscle. So, you’ll want to fill your plate before and after workouts. Here are some signs that you might not be eating enough protein.
You’re tired after a good night’s sleep.
If you constantly feel lethargic, even after a solid night of sleep, your body might be craving protein. “Because protein is slowly digested, it may play a role in regulating blood glucose levels. This helps prevent quick skips and crashes that can leave you feeling fatigued,” says Erin Palinski-Wade, RDN, author of Belly Fat Diet For Dummies. “Adding enough protein to each meal and snack and making sure not to go long periods of time in between meals can help you feel more energized throughout the day.”
You can’t seem to keep or build muscle.
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, explains Frances Largeman-Roth, RDN., nutrition expert, and author of Eating in Color. 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.
To prevent this, Palinski-Wade recommends meeting the RDA of protein. For the average man, that’s 56 grams per day. For the average woman that’s 46 grams per day. “In addition, plan to refuel within 30 minutes after exercise with a quality source of protein to build and repair muscle,” she says.
You’re hungry most of the time.
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,” explains Palinski-Wade.
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.
You’re losing more hair than normal.
Hair is primarily made up of protein. So eating too little protein can result in the body shifting focus from hair growth to conserving protein anyway it can, explains Palinski-Wade. “When this occurs, hair growth halts and you may find you are losing hair more rapidly.” The next time you notice more hair than usual piling up on your hairbrush or attaching to your clothes, check whether or not you’re meeting your daily protein requirements, as this might be the cause.
You’re bloating in weird places.
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,” explains Largeman-Roth. “When protein is too low, fluid [is] retained, causing edema.” She recommends scheduling a visit to your doctor to determine the cause of your edema.
You’re falling ill more often.
If you’re regularly under the weather not getting enough protein may be the culprit. Research from the Critical Care Medicine journal links a diet deficient in protein to a reduction in T cells in the body. “These cells fight off germs and enhance the immune system. Without them, you’re more likely to catch viruses such as colds and the flu,” explains Palinski-Wade. She recommends making sure your diet is rich in protein especially during the height of cold and flu season.