Protein Deficiency: The Hidden Signs

Every winter I find myself treating an inordinate number of patients for protein deficiency. Most of them are quite health-aware and have made conscious decisions as to what they include – and don’t include – in their diets. But somehow, despite their best intentions, they find themselves with this very significant deficiency.

Many of these patients are vegetarian. Others, perhaps the majority, have stopped eating red meat years ago but continue to eat chicken or fish once in a while. Though it is my personal belief that a vegetarian diet may be the healthiest, it seems there is something in the way we are doing it that leaves us vulnerable to protein deficiency and its consequences.

In this article, I want to offer some telltale signs of protein deficiency, as well as some effective protein-building strategies.

Interestingly, many Asian cultures seem to do well eating a vegetarian diet. So why can’t we eat that same way and thrive? No doubt our genetics have something to do with it. Books like The Blood Type Diet and other body typing systems, including Ayurveda, have contributed many insights into this question.

Something not often brought up, however, is that most traditional Asian cultures still have someone in the family who cooks full-time. On my journeys to India I’ve observed the cooks start cooking breakfast before anyone else is awake. Right after breakfast they start preparing lunch. After lunch, they are off to the market to buy food and then, right back at it to prepare supper.

By contrast, here many of us are too busy to cook and eating out has become the standard fallback. We race from one activity to the next, eating just to fill the tank for the next activity. Dining and enjoying a relaxed, home-cooked meal is becoming less and less common. As for the family cook, many moms have silently been elected the family superhero: holding down a job, driving and picking up kids, coordinating all of their activities and, oh yes, cooking for the entire tribe. Needless to say, this doesn’t leave much time for balanced meal preparation.

In trying to whip up our meals in minutes, we have really sacrificed the quality of our nourishment.

I often say that to be a good vegetarian you need to cook at least two hours a day. That’s not to propose a strict numbers rule, simply to emphasize that being a healthy vegetarian takes extra work. And when we consider our current lifestyles, it’s not surprising that many of us don’t actually end up putting in that extra work and our health suffers for it.

So, how can you tell if you are protein deficient? Here are the signs.

Note: To be clear, in this article I am not addressing a pathological protein deficiency. I am referring to a chronic sub-clinical lack of protein that forces the body to adapt and compensate for this nutritional imbalance.

Protein Deficiency Sign #1: Constant Cravingprotein deficiency cat and dog looking in refrigerator cravings image

Carbs, sweets, caffeine, chocolate, pop, candy, pastries, or chips; constant cravings for these non-nutritional foods point to unstable blood sugar. Not everyone with cravings is protein deficient (otherwise we would really be looking at a country-wide epidemic!), but protein deficiency and unstable blood sugar are intimately linked.

Blood Sugar Stability/ Protein Deficiency Home Test

This short test may help discover a blood sugar imbalance that a blood test might not pick up.

1. If you are a vegetarian or rarely eat meat and have a craving for carbs and just don’t feel satisfied until you are filled up on breads, pastas or sweets, you may have unstable blood sugar due to a deficiency of protein.

2. If you are a vegetarian and have a secret stash of candy, jelly beans or dark chocolate, you may have unstable blood sugar due to a deficiency of protein.

3. Try eating 3 meals a day without snacks. If you find you need to nibble or graze on anything other than water, you may have unstable blood sugar and cravings due to a deficiency of protein.

4. A blood test (fasting glucose [goal: 70-85 mg/dL] and Hemoglobin A1c [goal: below 5.5]) is most conclusive and indicated for anyone concerned about their blood sugar.

Protein Deficiency Sign #2: Muscle and/or Joint Pain

About fifteen years ago I had a sudden attack of severe neck pain. I got a massage, saw a few chiropractors, and got Rolfed but nothing seemed to touch this pain. I remember it was in the fall because I had the thought that, I might be protein deficient!

protein deficiency muscle ache sore ankle imageAccording to Ayurveda, during fall and winter the body starts to store proteins and fats to insulate and rebuild the body during the cold winter months. The body stores much of its protein reserves in the synovial fluid around the joints, to be used to rebuild the muscles and joints after strenuous exercise. When one is protein deficient, this reserve is the first to go. As a result, the joints stiffen and the muscles tighten. This kind of pain does not typically respond to standard musculoskeletal care.

I went down the checklist:

Yes, I had been a vegetarian for many years.

Yes, I did have a sweet tooth and loved carbs.

Yes, I was becoming a snacker.

Yes, it was winter and my joints were stiff and unresponsive to standard care.

The day I realized I might be protein deficient, I had two large whey protein powder shakes and added significantly more protein to my diet. With no exaggeration, my pain was gone by the end of that day. It had just left. No pills or herbs, just more protein!

Protein Deficiency Sign #3: Can’t Sleep Well?

Another concern that can be a result of lack of protein in the diet is the inability to sleep deeply through the night. Without protein, the body tends to crave carbs and sugar in excess. This creates a dependency on sugar for energy. However, sugar and carbs burn quickly, creating highs and lows in energy levels.

Sleeping through the night requires the body to burn fat – a long-lasting fuel – rather than sugar, for a stretch of at least eight or nine hours. If the body is unaccustomed to burning fat and only accustomed to burning sugar and carbs, it will wake up every 2-3 hours looking for its next meal.

A body that is trained in burning fat will be calmer and more able to sleep through the night. Getting enough protein at each meal will help stabilize the blood sugar and avoid the carbohydrate roller coaster in the first place, freeing up the body to learn how to burn its fat.

Protein Deficiency Sign #4: Low Energy, Moodiness, and Stress?protein deficiency fatigue stress at work image

The last sign to look for that might indicate a lack of protein in the diet is a feeling of low energy, moodiness, and the inability to handle stress well. Without protein to stabilize the blood sugar, the tendency to experience exhausting highs and lows in mood and energy increases. Over time highs and lows exhaust the body’s reserves and leave the body without the energy it needs to calm itself down.

Yes, the body actually needs energy to be calm, composed, to get through the day smoothly, sedate itself for bed and to sleep through the night.

Ayurvedic Meat Eaters: Solving Protein Deficiency

Ayurveda is a vegetarian system of medicine. In fact, cows are sacred and it is just not cool to eat them. But in the case of protein deficiency, Ayurvedic doctors will prescribe the medicinal eating of red meat. The prescription I learned to resolve a protein deficiency is this:

Eat 4 ounces of red meat a day for two weeks.

As a medicine, not a way of life.

I have used this recipe numerous times for protein deficiencies and have yet to see anything short of a miracle. That said, not all of the vegetarians I have treated were willing to do this, so below I have suggested alternative protein rebuilding strategies. While these vegetarian strategies do work, they never deliver the truly miraculous results I see with the 2 week red meat therapy.

Why Red Meat?

protein deficiency Grilled Beef Steak with Vegetable Salad image

  • Red meat is the most acidic of all meats and of all protein sources in general. The more acidic a substance, the deeper it penetrates the tissues and the better is stores. Legumes, beans, seeds, nuts, eggs, chicken, fish, and red meat go from more alkaline to more acidic in this order.
  • Alkaline foods are great cleansers. They flush the lymph and help the body detoxify. The more alkaline a food or diet, the more efficiently it will remove waste and toxins.
  • On the other hand, the more acidic a food, the less easy it will be to remove or detoxify. While we tend to associate the notion of acidic foods with mostly toxic or comfort foods, many acidic foods are actually very healthy and essential.
  • This is nature’s way of balancing: we help rebuild the body in the fall and winter with naturally occurring acidic foods and cleanse the body in the spring and summer with naturally occurring alkaline foods.

If a squirrel ate only broccoli in the winter, the squirrel would freeze to death. Luckily, nature does not make broccoli available in the colder winter months. The harvest during a cold winter was traditionally loaded with meats, grains, and root veggies – all primarily acidic, rich in protein, and rebuilding. This principle of eating naturally with the seasons is the main focus of my book, The 3-Season Diet. 

Options for Treating Protein Deficiency

1.  Red Meat. Even the Dalai Lama and many of the monks in Kashmir eat meat. If you are not totally offended by this option try the two week red meat blood plan to rebuild protein and stabilize blood sugar:

a) Eat 4 ounces of red meat a day for 2 weeks, preferably at lunch.

b) Have an extra protein source as part of a balanced breakfast and lunch, such as a protein shake (when buying protein powder, look for concentrates rather than isolates).

2. If eating meat is not an option for you, try the following:

      • Have 3 whey, pea, rice, or hemp protein powder shakes a day; one with each meal for a total of 75g of extra protein per day.
      • This is in addition to your regular balanced diet.
      • Eat off the winter grocery list and emphasize the vegetarian proteins and fats listed.

Balanced Diet

While everyone is different and has different needs based on many different factors including age, body type, blood type and cultural background, for most people, a balanced diet consists of about 50% veggies, 25% non-processed starches (whole grains, starchy vegetables such as potatoes, yams or corn), and 25% protein.

Non-Vegetarian Protein Sources:

  • Meat
  • Poultry
  • Fish
  • Dairy

Vegetarian Sources of Proteinprotein deficiency Group of nuts image

  • Seeds
  • Nuts
  • Beans
  • Lentils
  • Whole grains: quinoa, buckwheat, amaranth, wheat, rice, corn, oats.
  • Soy
  • Peas
  • Peanuts
  • Spinach
  • Potato
  • Sweet potato

If you have these symptoms and suspect you may not be getting adequate protein, please see your primary healthcare provider for a blind test and evaluation of your total serum protein.

As you can see, your protein levels can really make a difference in how you feel, especially throughout the winter. Whatever your diet of choice, I hope you continue to stay balanced and use these tips to help find what works for you. And remember, your feedback is always valued!

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* Please Note: We cannot effectively or legally answer personal health questions here, for further assistance please consider a personalized Ayurvedic Consultation.