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!

 

 

 

 

 

 


Join the Community Conversation!

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

  • Lumixian

    Sounds like you simply weren’t eating enough in general. I mean, if you lost 50 pounds… that’s petty telling.

    I also don’t think it was necessarily “animal protein” you were missing, it sounds like you were missing protein period — which you could have gotten from anywhere. It’s extremely easy to under-consume on a vegetarian/vegan diet, ESPECIALLY if you’re active.

    There aren’t a large variety of heavy protein options when you’re a vegan so a lot of people who attempt the vegan lifestyle often complain about lack of energy and headaches. Why? Not because the diet is flawed, but because they didn’t calculate and/or pay attention to their macronutrient needs.

    Best example are those who think they can go vegan via salads alone. They’re most likely gonna run into this protein-deficiency issue for obvious reasons. Oftentimes, people aren’t as understanding as they think they are in regards to what they need to adequately sustain themselves on a vegan diet.

    Take a look at this:
    http://www.dailygarnish.com/2010/09/5-warning-signs-you-arent-getting-enough-protein-a-guest-post-from-no-meat-athlete.html

    • Kevin Howard

      You don’t know anything about this person’s former weight before he
      became a vegan and you certainly don’t have enough information to assume
      he wasn’t eating enough, simply because he lost a lot of weight.
      Actually, his choice of words indicate that he probably lost the weight
      over a substantial length of time. I don’t like your tone that implies
      that he was unhealthy or uneducated when it came to his meal
      pairings…who are you to even assume anything like that? You have ZERO
      information to support any kind of validity in your claims. Furthermore,
      he is a runner, and yes, according to his own needs he probably does
      need more animal proteins to help rebuild those tissues, as is evidence
      by the signals his body was giving him. I know lots of vegans and very
      few of them have the energy to run and do any activity more strenuous
      than yoga as well as constantly complain about being cold even in warm
      weather, and they are quite educated and careful with their pairings so
      perhaps the diet IS a bit flawed. It’s people like you who sort of give
      vegans a bad reputation–for being judgmental, elitist and unwilling to
      really listen to other’s point of view.

      Why can’t
      people like you just accept that every single person alive has a
      different metabolism, body chemistry and susceptibility to ailments and
      that there is no one-diet-fits-all. When a vegan diet may work wonders
      for some, it may make others sick. I too, was a vegan/vegetarian for a
      short while and found myself sicker than ever and had to take a closer
      look at the way that I perceived health and nutrition. I had a similar
      experience and cured myself by adding high-quality grassfed and wild
      caught meats and fish back to my diet. Perhaps some people just need
      more protein than others. That simple.

      And
      contrary to popular vegan belief, it’s very hard to get adequate amounts
      of absorbable protein from non-meat sources. In nuts and beans the
      protein available is really just inferior and it’s nearly impossible to
      eat enough to compensate for animal proteins for a lot of people that
      require higher levels of protein and Iron. For a lot of people, the diet
      is flawed. Just because it may work for you, dosn’t mean it’s the only
      route to health. Try listening a little better and maybe even do a
      little more research before piping in, because i’m sensing a little
      naivety…

      • Lumixian

        You replied to me with a tick on your shoulder. I didn’t so much assume any more than simply go off of what was said and offer an alternate explanation for ‘why’ with the limited information that was provided. Of course there’s going to be a degree of assumption and conjecture considering I don’t have a detailed copy of this person’s diet, lifestyle, and habits, and neither do you. This is the big problem with internet anecdotes supporting a particular diet or lifestyle. There’s a large degree of fallibility, because people neglect to provide crucial details that helps others identify what exactly what might have went wrong. Saying you were “vegan” and going through complications isn’t any more informative than saying you were non-vegan and going through complications. We don’t know enough to solely blame it on a vegan diet.

        Also, I’m not a vegan, so that’s an assumption YOU got wrong yourself, I just read a lot about the diet and lifestyle and many of the vegans I KNOW don’t complain or mention the stuff that you brought up. See, there’s that thing with internet anecdotes again, you might have run into a certain group of vegans, and I another.

        Maybe you should take your own advice and lay off the assumptions. My tone was fairly neutral, and I gave examples of SOME vegans I’ve seen in the past who clearly lack the know-how to do well with that dietary lifestyle.

        In any case, your agenda is obvious, as your first instinct was to blame the diet. I never projected any ignorance on the previous commenter, or even hint at it. You’re clearly misreading what you want and misrepresenting my tone to create a hostile figure due to your innate bias and apparent anti-vegan agenda.

        “It’s people like you who sort of give vegans a bad reputation–for being judgmental, elitist and unwilling to really listen to other’s point of view.”

        Ummm… no. You projected elitism onto me simply because I gave advice. I “listened” as well as you did, and at the end of the day there are many many MANY details missing in the anecdote. You seem to be in the same vain unwilling to listen to others’ points of view.

  • Ashish

    This article is very insightful. I share almost all the symptom listed. Unfortunately I have protein intolerance . IgE levels are high. advised for a complete non protein diet, which has been helpful to settle my irritable bowels . It’s a vicious circle . Please advise

  • oliver james

    When one has a “protein deficiency” which proteins are they deficient in? There are over 120,000 each with uber specific duties and functions. Which ones is this guy talking about? Can we have a name? keratin? collagen?

    • samir

      today it has dawned on scientists that weakness,pain in joints and bones,fatigue,
      lack of energy and getting stressed with even small workloads,depressed state of ming,various strokes
      are all caused by lack of essential vitamins,minerals,calcium and protein.
      almost all the people in india on a vegetarian diet regularly take vitamin pills
      that enables them to continue their vegetarian diet.

      as for vegan diet i think it
      will be impossible for the masses to survive on for long.

      these same scientists not long ago were saying that

      egg is bad,cholesterol is dangerous

      chicken is fattening high calories

      red meat is dangerous,fear of stroke,death,kaplooiee ( you’re gone!)

      fish is heavy to digest,where will the body store extra calories??,
      weight gain,diabetes,stroke,etc,etc…

      two years ago when i had a stroke of weakness,it was found that i had alsost zero
      reserves of vitamin d,extremely low b12 levels,lack of protein in diet.

      the doctor gave me two injections of 600,000 i.u. vitamin d,and a dose of
      60,000 iu vit d and 500mcg methylcobalamin(b 12) every week for four months.

      how medical science changed all of a sudden!!??!!

      i was also told by the doctor not to depend on pills for your daily vitamin needs
      but to include natural sources of calcium,protein,vit D & vit b12.

      i asked him is it okay to eat eggs,fish,chicken,mutton?,
      he replied you can eat whatever you want.

      so now its bye bye vegetarian diet??

      if pills contain extracts of animals,fish then why not consume non-veg food???….

  • Daniel

    I’ve dealt with illness and infection for 3yrs now. No doc could give me answers. I’ve dealt with constant hunger and lots of weight gain on the side. Now that infections are over I deal with weakness, brain fog, inability to lose weight and I don’t know what it’s from. But this morning I had a soy protein shake and my strength levels increased. I exercised for almost an hour. Last year I wasn’t able to lift a 24case of beer. Now I wonder if protein deficiency is causing all of my problems? I eat meat at least once a day for dinner. Other meals are free from it. I guess I’ll have to give a shot and see what happens.

    • Courtney Jean McCue

      Have you ever heard of pea protein? I work for a health & wellness company and we specialize in providing people with the best quality products with benefits to their health. Both Whey and Soy protein are not fit for human consumption.

      Of course, half the things that you buy in the store today are not meant for it. Same as the stuff we put on our skin. I bet many of you didn’t know that our skin is the biggest organ in our body and everything we put on our skin enters our bloodstream within 26 seconds.

      Dr. Oz recently released a video on pea protein and the benefits it has for you, check it out on youtube. Because of this, there is a pea protein shortage worldwide! The business I work with provides protein shake/meal replacement in both vanilla and chocolate flavours … which are botanically derived from nature! Meaning there is no artificial flavours or sweeteners added to give it that flavour! Made up of pea protein and rice protein to give you the perfect amino acid score!

      The Benefits:
      • Contains easily digested vegan protein
      • Contains more than 20 vitamins and minerals to support good health
      • Gluten-free
      • Dairy-free; ideal for the lactose-intolerant
      • No whey or soy proteins
      • Kosher-certified
      • No saturated fats, trans fats or cholesterol
      • No artificial colours, flavours or sweeteners

      Find me on facebook if you are interested and I will be more than happy to help you get on the right track to your health. Whether it is providing you with a shake or helping you with your health!

  • Patricia Cowie

    Can I ask…..once I start to increase the protein in my diet, how long before I see the positive results? And would a severely swollen tummy when I do eat be part of the symptoms of protein deficiency? If it is, how long before my stomach stops hurting and swelling from when I up the protein in my diet? Patricia

  • Andy C.

    I WebMD’d myself into thinking I was diabetic. Not full-blown hypochondriac, but definitely was freaking out. I’ve been trying to eat healthier, so I’ve decreased my caloric intake and eliminated “junk” foods from my diet, but I’d lie down each night with my heart a-flutter, anticipating a panic attack, because I couldn’t seem to regulate my blood sugar levels. No matter my carb/sugar intake, I was living in a perpetual hypoglycemic event. Turns out I should’ve been treating myself with protein. Since doing this, my blood sugar has leveled and I feel great again. I stumbled upon this article while trying to confirm my personal diagnosis/treatment, and I have to say… it seems dead-on.

  • Angie

    I have seen this article more than once. While I deeply respect Dr. Douillard, there are a few things that truly bother me about this article. The real problem isn’t the source of the protein, its the lack of healthy foods being ingested. The statements in this article create the assumption that eating vegetarian or vegan is very time consuming, that we have to cook all day in order to eat properly, and that it is both safer and easier to simply consume red meat. We need to stop perpetuating the myth that we will harm ourselves and our family members with a vegetarian/or vegan diet. This just spreads fear and is simply untrue. There is enough modern information out there to counter the assumption that you need to cook all day to eat well-and healthy- as a vegetarian/vegan. There are plenty of great website, books, and other resources that give you great tips on how to make good food easily, and how to eat well while working a full time job with a busy family. You can’t just pop a meal in the microwave and expect it to nourish you, but you don’t have to slave all day either. Eating meat carries health risks, and there are plenty of scientific studies that prove this. Hence the frequent recommendation that those who suffer from many serious health issues should veer towards a vegetarian diet, or decrease meats (and often its red meat that is the culprit) and vastly increase said veggies. The American Academy of Dietetics states that such veggie diets are safe for all stages of live-womb to seniors- when planned well. In truth, ALL diets need to be planned well. I think we all need to follow our own paths, and choose the food path that works best for our own unique bodies, and I love the Ayurvedic model for this. The real trouble is that we all too often eat unwell, whether vegetarian, vegan, and/or omnivore. I will state again, the problem isn’t the source of the protein, its the overall lack of healthy foods being ingested.

  • http://www.facebook.com/joyouslivingnow JoyousLivingNow

    I went through the same thing. taking HCL before meat meals helped. I also found that bone broth was the best way for me to get the nutrition I needed. What I found out was I was gluten intolerant (allergy test) and getting rid of all grains and seeds and adding the bone broth has significantly changed my health!

  • http://www.kellenbrugman.com/ kellen brugman

    Thanks, Dr John! Your article highlights the importance of paying attention to our body and mind in order to catch the imbalances at the early stages of imbalance. And the principle of food being medicine. This is what makes Ayurveda so beautiful. I’d also like to add the importance of integrating yoga, especially the poses which support the synovial fluid…a practice that nourishes the kapha dosha in the joints. And of course, pranayama which calms the nervous system and supports digestion and optimal assimilation of foods.

  • Carol Mcclure

    I would say my husband is definitely protein deficient and most likely myself. How do you know how much protein your body needs? My husband is predominately Vata and I am Kapha

  • CJN

    This might sound odd but I really love it. A Japanese woman I knew once showed me what her and her friends ate in medical school for a fast hi-protein breakfast. White miso (Shiro) with an egg. She’d partially cook an egg in microwave for 30′ then add powder, followed by boiling water. Except for high salt, it is so satisfying.

  • Janice

    I’m a little confused… the recommendation here is to add “a total of 75 mg of extra protein per day.” There are 1000mg in 1g. My rice protein powder is 17g per serving, already way more than 75mg. Is this a misprint and the recommendation should be an increase of “75g per day”?

    • Mark Vinick

      Hi Janice, yes obviously it is a typo. An additional 75 Grams of protein is what Dr John is recommending.

  • chang

    do you recommend someone eat red meat for 2 weeks once a year or how often? thanks

  • Genie

    this article has changed my life… I’ve had all of these symptoms off and on for the most part on – for many years… struggled with proteins and alternate proteins… it especially got bad when trying to avoid meat. I’m blood type O and extremely physically active and very true to nature to Blood Type O behavior descriptions. I immediately noticed an improvement following the diet suggestions and a top sirloin every day at lunch, 3 meals, etc and am fully of energy, brain functions better and dropping weight rapidly. never felt better and so grateful! thank you!

  • Andrzej Jęziorski

    Not correct. Find: The.Most.Important.Knowledge.You.would.Ever.Read.Implement.and.Live.up.to.Forever.pdf

  • Tawanda Walton

    The information I read was helpful.

  • Melody

    Most “protein-deficency” symptoms mimik zillions of other problems. Ive been educated to believe there has never EVER been a human who died of a protein def. The animals are tortured beings. Their “protein” is poison. Soy has been raped and now GMO only. Our bees are dying in alarming rates.

  • Julie Baker

    Dr. Douillard wrote: “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!”

    Here’s my experience – I have dozens of symptoms, and have been tested for virtually everything I can think of. Like the doctor, I realized I might be protein deficient, so I have been eating more protein, especially beef. With no exaggeration, my pain has NOT miraculously gone away by the end of ANY day, nor am I one of his cases he’s seen that are “nothing less than miracles.” It HASN’T just left. He should not give people hope, knowing that there are those out there like me who are feeling hopeless! It’s cruel!

    What would truly be a miracle is if I actually wanted to live one more day, because right now I don’t.

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  • Sen Chi

    The idea you speak about regarding eating what’s in season in relation to the acidic/alkaline balance made a lot of sense to me. As being vegan in the wintertime I notice my body being very cold most of the time. The thing that came to mind though was, what about people who live around the equator and therefore don’t experience seasonal foods per se?