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!

Comments

    • John Douillard says

      Hi Tara,
      Lamb, cow, bison and game are all considered red meat, therefore more acidic and have medicinal properties to stabilize blood sugar-related issues.
      John

  1. Kate says

    Dear Dr. Douillard,

    I wanted to let you know how helpful this article is for both my husband and myself. At the risk of being long-winded, I would like to personally confirm several of the points you made.

    My husband and I are currently following dietary recommendations from Dr. D’Adamo’s clinic, Center of Wellness. (Eat Right for Your Type.) I am Blood Type B and Pete is Blood Type O. We have been amazed at the difference it has made for each of us. So the story I’m about to tell occurred in the past.

    We had carefully followed a vegetarian Macrobiotic diet for about five years when two surprising events occurred. First, my husband was transferred to a position across the country that required a good deal of traveling and business and corporate seminar dinners (in a masculine dominated industry). I was home selling the house for about three months while he came home every other weekend. Pete started eating chicken on his trips. Within weeks, friends who saw him on his weekends home raved about how great he looked. Macrobiotic friends especially: “What is Pete doing?”

    The second event was that I had a hysterectomy eight months after we moved that I couldn’t seem to recover from–despite the optimism of the (brilliant) surgeon and all our friends and ourselves that I would do fine because I was fit and followed such a “healthy” diet. Well, I wound up back in the hospital where I was forced to eat the hospital food because my husband was traveling five days a week and we had no friends. I was too tired and dispirited to ask for special meals and just ate what I was served (except for desserts.) The beef tasted especially good to me. When I came home, I started buying turkey sandwiches once or twice a week from the health food store. I was my old self in a matter of weeks. Better actually.

    A Macrobiotic friend who knew the above went to the beach with her (non-Macrobiotic) mother the following summer; on a whim she bought one of those hams in a tin. She ate ham every day for two weeks and called me the minute she arrived home to say that she felt a depression just completely lift along with all mental fogginess and indecision.

    I love reading your articles and almost never fail to learn something important. Thank you for all you are doing.

    Best,

    Kate

  2. Charlotte Shintaku says

    Makes a lot of sense. I was craving red meat, and I slept better when I had a glass of milk before bed, albeit it was chocolate milk, but maybe the protein, as well as the calcium helped.

    • John Douillard says

      Hi Melissa,
      That is hard to say. To be clear, I am recommending red meat as a regular part of the diet, but as a medicine if you have a protein-related blood sugar instability issue. That said, I have seen numerous patients who have not eaten red meat in 20-30 years have nothing short of miraculous results when eating red meat for just two weeks to rebuild protein reserves.
      Hope that helps,
      John

  3. Tamara says

    The information you have shared about protein deficiency is in the March list of articles and yet there are references to winter. Is the 2-week beef diet meant to be done in the spring or can it be done any time of the year?

  4. Jessics says

    I would like to hear the response to this last comment about timing as well. I am about to begin the 2 week Colorado cleanse in April, and I am wondering if 2 weeks of this protein regime might be appropriate before beginning the cleanse.

  5. Christina says

    Hello,
    I’m not sure I have a protein deficiency, but I’ve been told that I may not be absorbing protein very well. Symptoms: burning throat, tongue, as well as tingling tongue and lips. Could there be another cause for these symptoms?

    Thank you.

    • Jane says

      Christina, That sounds more like a B12 deficiency. Look up the symptoms for this and have your blood tested along with D vitamin levels.

  6. ray newman says

    hi, I am seeking advice for my wife who was diagnosed with osteoporosis in august last year plus suffered 7 fractures of the spine, after being treated with various painkillers she has lost a considerable amount of weight since then and has suffered badly with mouth ulcers making it almost impossible to chew things like etc, so eating is a major problem and she is unable to put on weight (went from 55.8kgs down to just under 42kgs). Her skin is very dry and itchy which keeps her awake at night scratching, how do I go in putting proteins back into her so the itching and the painful joints go away.
    Looking forward to some solution to help get her back on her feet and feel better.
    Regards Ray

    • Lavi says

      To Ray Newman. Hi Ray! I just read about your wife’s health problem. Soak half teaspoon of gelatine in one glass of tap water overnight and give her to drink in the morning for 1 month. If it is helping her continue a bit longer. Thanks!

    • Jane says

      Ray, you need to get a vitamix blender and make green smoothies she is not absorbing nutrition. Last year I had terrible stomach problems and couldnt eat for months and lost 32lbs my skin and hair have suffered terribly and the vitamin brought me back to life. I made green smoothies using protein powder, kale, spinach, banana, carrots, berries, yogurt, coconut water, you can out anything in there but this way she will absorb it better. Make sure it’s all organic and have her D, B12 and iron checked in sure she is deficient in all. I was as well and I was also taking liquid vitamins because they absorb easier and hold under the tongue before swallowing. bio D Mulsion Forte (must be emulsified vitamin D) 3 drops a day for a couple of months if her levels are as low as 30. Mine too 2 months to get to normal. I was doing 2 smithies a day and eating regular food plus protein shakes like ensure will help. The itching could be nerve pain which is a sign of low b12 it will get a lot worse and can cause nerve damage if she is low on that so please get that checked. I had the same problem.

  7. Eseul Jung says

    I’ve been eating a fruitarian/vegan/plant based diet for 4 months. Then I started feeling weak & tired. I started eating plant based/vegan because i got severe eczema & bloody, pus, skin lesions on the inside of my arms. I found out it was from the milks & eggs I was eating. I’m allergic to milk & eggs. I read about many people healing eczema on a healthy, plant based/vegan diet. I also wanted to lose weight so i stopped eating milk, eggs, and meat. I only ate potatoes, fruits & vegetables with no meat, fat, sugar, or salt. The eczema went away but then I started feeling weak, my heartbeat was slow, and i havent gotten my period for 8 months. So i went to the doctor and they told me i have a protein deficiency. They took blood tests and said I actually have a B12 deficiency. And B12 is only found in meat, fish, and seafood…

    • John Douillard says

      Hello Eseul,
      I am very hesitant to make any recommendations in a Comment without the full intake and health history acquired during a consultation. In addition to Ayurvedic wisdom, extensive clinical experience and the personal experience of being mostly vegan for the last 23 years (12 of which were 100% vegan), I will make some general recommendations to get you started:
      It makes complete sense to me that you experienced these symptoms on a nonfat diet of only potatoes, fruit and vegetables. This is a good recipe for depletion, poor digestion, imbalanced blood sugar levels, mood instability and an exhausted nervous system.
      I suggest you start taking a B-12 supplement every day (with B-6, Folic Acid and Biotin and B-12 as methylcobalamin).
      In addition, ensure that you enjoy a good source of protein and fat at every meal. A good formula is ½ the plate is vegetables, ¼ is protein and ¼ is a complex starch, in addition to a good fat.
      As a meal of only starches and vegetables is not enough protein, make sure you are getting a strong source of protein such as legumes and nuts/seeds at every meal. Follow the 2 week protein protocol Dr. John recommends, which is to add one protein drink to every meal for two weeks (in addition to a food source of protein).
      Fat is essential for good digestion, sleep and calm nerves, so focus on avocado, nuts/seeds and/or or your favorite healthful oils at every meal. Be very careful of not eating too low fat. When we remove meat and dairy from the diet, we remove an essential dose of fat (and protein). You must replace this fat.
      A little salt is necessary – do not go salt-free.
      Very important: start testing your fasting glucose every morning, with the goal that your levels are 85 or less.
      You may need to reduce your intake of fruit, which can be hard to digest and create imbalanced blood sugar.
      Read all of Dr. John’s articles on protein, fat, fruit and blood sugar (including the ebook on blood sugar).
      Try this for a few weeks. If you don’t feel better, please consider a consult.

      ~ Tauna Houghton, CAP, Ayurvedic Practitioner at LifeSpa

      • Eseul says

        Hi Tauna,

        Thank you so much for the reply. I will try to follow your recommendations. I’m so confused about what to eat because ive been brainwashed by all the low fat/fat free vegan advocates on the internet but i don’t think it’s right for my body. I used to eat a moderate amount of meat, dairy, eggs, and seafood all my life until the last 2 years when i decided to do a plant based/vegan diet.

        I never had digestive problems like this before. All my poop is coming out crumbly and undigested and i think it’s bc im not eating any fat like you said. im also constantly bloated…i think it’s because it’s too much fruits, vegetables, and starchy food.

        I tried some milk & eggs again and i didn’t get eczema so i think i can eat it again. I think i had an allergic reaction before because i was eating too much milk & eggs at one time. So it created an imbalance.

        I think I’ll do the 2 week red meat therapy & take one whey protein shake each day. I don’t mind not eating a vegan diet. I was just doing it because i thought it was healthy to eat a fat free plant based diet…but i guess not since it’s giving me digestive problems & nutritional deficiencies. And I did already start taking a methylcobalamin B12 multivitamin since my doctor recommended it.

        Is it okay to leave out fruit completely? And why does too much fruit cause digestion problems? Does that have to do with food combining? There’s a lot of talk about food combining in the vegan diet. I was trying to eat a fruitarian diet for a while. I tried eating 10-15 bananas a day and lots of other fruit….it didn’t feel right… I never used to eat that much fruit….but i just wanted to do it anyway. I think im ready to change things up cause im not feeling well with this whole fat free vegan & fruitarain diet.

      • Eseul says

        Also, I started getting eczema again on the low fat vegan diet even though it was supposed to heal my eczema….my skin has been really dry, itchy, and scaly. bleeding. It’s on the inside of my arms. I think it was because i wasn’t eating any fat. I still haven’t gotten my period. it’s been 8 months. Last time i got it was Around September 20th 2014 (last year).

        And is 1-2 servings of fruit a day okay?

  8. Eseul Jung says

    And I don’t have a protein deficiency but I do have the B12 deficiency. I did some research and plant foods are rich in protein. Some plant foods actually have more protein than meat. Like grains, greens, and beans. So I’m not concerned about the protein, just the B12. I was also having trouble sleeping and felt stressed & anxious. And i was having trouble digesting food. Bloating & sometimes diarrhea. Tried to exercise but I have no energy to do so.

  9. Susan says

    Omg, I think I found the missing puzzle piece I have been searching for for over 2 decades!

    I became ill with CFS & FMS because of over training in karate when I was 20. I am now 48 and still haven’t recovered. I have since found out my CFS & FMS is in actuality Adrenal Fatigue & Candida.

    Of course protein deficiency makes sense bc it is probably the reason I became sick in the first place. Over training and eating an average poor American diet? I was basically asking for trouble. I realize, only lately, that when training hard like I did, a person needs to have extra protein.

    Thank you so much for your info, it really hit me and gave me the wake up call I desperately needed.

    The protein deficiency symptoms you wrote about could have been written about me. Those symptoms are what I have been trying so hard to fix. And I’ve tried so many things. I’ve tried to eat more protein, but I’ve never been a protein eater. My body responds positively when I DO eat protein, but I have a natural dislike of just about all protein

    So now that I plan to go out and buy protein powder, asap, can you please educate me on what type of protein powder I should get. I am totally clueless about protein powder.

    Thank you for the much needed info you wrote about,
    Susan.

    • John Douillard says

      Hi Susan,
      Look for the least processed protein powder and avoid soy. Hemp protein is often sold in a simple, ground up form in health food stores. You can also make your own protein powder using a blend of sesame, hemp and chia seeds. There is a recipe on thefirstmess.com that looks good.
      Keep us posted on your progress!

  10. says

    I have had very bad muscle pain in my shoulder for months. Also I have had planned her so she -itis for almost a year. I’ve tried everything that’s been suggested with no good results. I was wondering if protein may be the problem with me not healing. Do you have any suggestions? Thank you

  11. Aly says

    I read that protein deficiency (and or B1 deficiency) show itself by body water retention. Is this true?

    I eat 1-3 tablespoons nutitional yeast daily, then salmon sushi once a week. Yet Ive been holding water more the past year or more being 99% produce based vegan for over a decade (other than fish 1xweek). Protien blood tested levels were normal .

  12. Norman says

    Hi,
    Than you for such a interesting article. My problem is that my DT, says from blood test taken, I have a protein difficienty, I cam sleep all day, and don’t seem to have any energy , is this a sympton.
    Thank you

  13. llona english says

    After reading your stuff im sure im protein deficient, also fat. Cant digest oils well. Thought it was my gall bladder, but had it and stones removed almost 2 yrs ago. So been on lots of starches, minimal meat and yogurt. Why isnt soy protein isolate any good? Allergy to hemp, pea,and cant digest whey and soy concentrate, nor digest many added vitamins. Also allergy to rice

  14. Elizabeth says

    Thankyou for this post! I have all of the symptoms above (craving sweets, snacking, moodiness, glucose levels outside of the provided range) and I also have blood tests to show that I am protein deficient. However, I am not a vegetarian and eat a ton of protein- yet my levels have not improved over the last two years. So while I am not a vegetarian, I do not eat red meat very often. Do you believe that even though I am not a vegetarian, adding in more red meat would be beneficial?

    I will also add into my diet your suggestion of the protein shake three times a day. Currently I have just one in the morning in attempt to balance my blood sugar levels first thing in the morning.

    Thank you!
    Elizabeth

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