Protein is nicknamed “the building block of the body” for a reason: so many functions and aspects of good health (and fitness and strength) depend upon it. The amino acids that comprise protein enable the formation and functioning of all living tissue. But not all protein sources are equal, and getting the wrong types of protein, or incomplete proteins, could leave you languid and unable to meet your fitness goals.
Here’s why protein matters, how much you actually need, and how to spot signs of protein deficiency.
What does protein actually do?
Protein transports oxygen through the body, breaks down food and nutrients, fuels your energy levels, regulates hormones and so much more. Its many functions enable your body to rebuild and refuel muscles fast, and improve your daily energy and long-term strength. Protein is vital to maintaining good fitness and good health.
But aren’t there many nutrients the body requires to maintain optimal health? This is certainly true, but protein is particularly important because so much of our body is comprised of it. From structural proteins like collagen and keratin and storage proteins like hemoglobin to hormonal proteins like insulin and of course immunoglobulins (the proteins that protect the body against bacteria and viruses), protein is essential to our very lives.
How much protein do you really need?
The U.S. government says that men and women over the age of 19 should be consuming a minimum of 0.37 grams of protein per pound of weight. But that amount increases based on activity level. When you’re a bodybuilder or if you work out long and hard, your body requires even more protein than normal to function at its best. Bodybuilders, for example, require 0.63 to 0.77 grams of protein per pound of weight to maintain and build muscle mass, according to the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.
Protein deficiency, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), is rare in the U.S.—thanks in part to our heavy meat consumption and protein shake habits. But it’s more common among vegetarians or vegans, especially if they aren’t taking sports nutrition supplements.
Although protein deficiency is relatively rare now, there’s a growing risk of protein deficiency looming on the horizon, thanks to the rising problem of carbon emissions. These emissions have been shown to decrease the protein content of foods like potatoes, barley, rice and wheat. These new findings may indicate a growing need for the sports nutrition industry and protein supplements.
Symptoms of protein deficiency
How do you know if you’re protein deficient? Compare this list of symptoms to your own experience, and if they seem all too familiar, talk to your doctor about how you can increase your protein intake through diet and supplements.
Food cravings (and general hunger)
Protein is filling. And while severe protein deficiency leads to poor appetite, more moderate deficiencies can increase the appetite, especially for certain foods. Though bodybuilders need increased calories anyway, this could work against your goals and lead to unwelcome weight gain if you’re eating too many calories and not working them off.
Poor (or decreased) muscle mass and brittle bones
When protein isn’t readily available in the muscles, the body goes into protein starvation mode and hurriedly tries to refuel however it can. That usually means taking any protein it can from the bones to try to strengthen the muscles. But this can leave bones more brittle and prone to fractures, and isn’t enough to keep your muscles strong and powerful. Poor protein levels may also increase muscle and joint pain. While low muscle mass is typically associated with old age, consuming protein can help shift the tides. In fact, studies among elderly people showed that low protein equals greater muscle wasting, and increased protein slowed the process.
Swelling and bloating
Protein helps the body flush out excess fluids, preventing the buildup that leads to swollen body parts. If you’re noticing swelling for seemingly no good reason, you may be deficient in protein.
Problems with your skin, hair and nails
Severe protein deficiencies are easily seen in skin, hair and nails because these specifically depend on collagen, keratin and elastin for good health. Major deficiencies can lead to flaky, poorly pigmented skin, thinning hair (or hair loss) and brittle nails.
Brain fog is nobody’s friend, but it goes hand-in-hand with low protein or protein deficiencies. If your thinking abilities are taking a backseat or require a bit more energy than usual, or if you’re experiencing decreased mental alertness, you may be suffering from protein deficiency.
How to improve your protein intake
While many foods contain protein, it can be challenging to make sure you’re getting enough (especially as a bodybuilder) if you prefer a low-meat or vegan diet. Protein supplements are always a good idea for improving and maintaining good health and performance. But when you’re deficient, protein supplementation is vital.
Not all protein supplements are created equal, though. Some may contain fillers (even dangerous ones) that minimize the amount, or quality, of the protein you’re actually ingesting. This could actually harm your health in the long run. When choosing a protein supplement, it’s important to read real, honest reviews (like these ones here) to ensure you’re getting the best supplements for you and your fitness and wellness goals.
Protein isn’t just a good idea. It’s vital to comprehensive, all-over wellness (whether you’re an athlete or not). It’s time to boost your performance, strength and fitness. We’ll drink (a protein shake) to that.