All year long, and especially each winter, I find myself treating an inordinate number of patients with a subclinical protein deficiency. Most of them are quite health-aware and have made conscious decisions as to what to include—and not include—in their diets.
But somehow, despite the best intentions, they find themselves crashing due to a significant dietary imbalance.
Many of these patients are vegetarian. Others, perhaps the majority, 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 lack of protein and its consequences.
In this article, I offer telltale signs of a long-term lack of proteins, as well as some effective protein-building strategies.
The Family Cook
Interestingly, many Asian cultures seem to do well on 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 Eat Right 4 Your Type and other body typing systems (including Ayurveda) have helped us further understand the individualized nature of diet.
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, so 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 cook, many moms have silently been elected the family superhero: holding down a job, driving and picking up kids, coordinating all the 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 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 impose a strict numbers rule, but 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 end up putting in that extra work or end up eating out. Sadly, finding a healthy, balanced vegetarian meal in a restaurant is challenging and the oils all restaurants use are cheap and highly processed, which significantly compromises digestive strength and food quality. In the end, our health suffers for it.
Trending to a Plant-Based Diet Requires Care
Since the year 2000, there has been a global trend toward eating less animal protein, and more plants. The science on the health benefits of a plant-based diet is overwhelming, but not everyone is making this shift successfully.
In one study, over 1,600 Europeans who were transitioning to a more plant-based diet were evaluated in an attempt to measure the adequacy of protein intake from a more plant-based diet. In 50% of this population, protein intake was adequate and met both the European and US standards for required protein intake.2
But 50% were not getting adequate protein and amino acid intake. Half of this group’s protein inadequacy was due to not eating a high enough quantity of protein, while 30% was due to not getting the right quality of protein (as in a lack of certain amino acids like lysine).2
So, how can you tell if you are lacking protein?
Signs of Deficient Protein Intake
Note: When I use the term protein deficiency here, I am not addressing pathological protein deficiency, but rather a chronic subclinical lack of protein that forces the body to adapt and compensate: one that wouldn’t show up on blood tests, but is linked clinically to a host of health concerns. This syndrome is described in Ayurveda and I have seen numerous clinical “miracles” over the years when the right protein is reintroduced.
Deficient Protein Sign 1: Constant Craving
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 inadequate protein consumption and cravings are intimately linked.4
When high-carbohydrate diets are compared to low-fat or vegetarian diets, low-fat vegetarians had stronger cravings for sweets and fats.4 This is one of the classic concerns of a vegan diet when fats and oils are restricted. Cravings, along with a higher consumption of higher-fat and sugary comfort foods, are a sign that there may be a deficiency in fats (which are naturally found in animal proteins). This can a result in a person who craves and over-consumes fat and sugar, which can destabilize blood sugar.4
Blood Sugar Stability / Protein Deficiency Home Test
This short test can help you 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, just not feel satisfied until you are filled up on breads, pastas, or sweets, you may have unstable blood sugar due to a protein deficiency.
2. If you are vegetarian and have a secret stash of candy, jelly beans, or dark chocolate, you may have unstable blood sugar due to a protein deficiency.
3. Try eating three meals per 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 protein deficiency.
4. A blood test (fasting glucose [goal: 70-85 mg/dL] and Hemoglobin A1c [goal: below 5.2]) is the most conclusive and indicated for anyone concerned about their blood sugar.
Deficient Protein Sign 2: Muscle and/or Joint Pain
After 35 years in practice (working with athletes a majority of that time), I have seen many cases of chronic joint and muscle pain linked to a dietary lack of high-quality protein.
About 20 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!
According 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, which is used to rebuild the muscles and joints after strenuous exercise. In fact, the synovial fluid is so rich in protein, one study found 267 different proteins in the synovial fluid of the knee.1
During a chronic lack of adequate protein, the synovial fluids are among the first protein reserves to be depleted and the joints may start to ache, the muscles can stiffen, and the body may become more vulnerable to injury.
This kind of pain does not typically respond to standard musculoskeletal care.
I went down the checklist:
- Yes, I had been 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 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 protein lack is an inability to sleep deeply through the night. Without protein, the body tends to crave excess carbs and sugar, which creates a dependency on sugar for energy. However, sugar and carbs burn quickly, creating energy level highs and lows. In fact, vegetarians who tend towards quick bites of comforts foods have a higher prevalence of anxiety, depression, and sleep issues.5
Sleeping through the night requires burning fat (a long-lasting fuel) rather than sugar for a stretch of at least eight or nine hours. If you are only accustomed to burning sugar and carbs, you’ll wake up every 2-3 hours looking for your next meal.
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A body trained in burning fat will be calmer and more able to sleep through the night. Enough protein at each meal will help stabilize blood sugar and avoid the carbohydrate roller coaster, freeing up the body to learn how to burn fat.4
Protein Deficiency Sign 4: Low Energy, Moodiness, and Stress
The last sign to look for that might indicate a lack of protein is a feeling of low energy, moodiness, and inability to handle stress well. Studies have shown that a higher-protein diet can support a healthier and more stable mood.3 This is not to say that we cannot get too much of a good thing—the shift to a more plant-based diet just needs to happen with care.3, 4, 5
Without protein to stabilize mood, the tendency increases to experience exhausting highs and lows in mood and energy. Over time, highs and lows exhaust the body’s reserves and leave you without the energy you need to calm yourself down.
Yes, the body actually needs energy to be calm and composed, to get through the day smoothly, and to sedate itself for bed and sleep through the night.
Options for Treating Protein Deficiency
1. Two-Week Red Meat Therapy
Ayurveda is a vegetarian system of medicine. In fact, cows are sacred and it is just not cool to eat them. However, in the case of protein deficiency, Ayurvedic doctors will prescribe red meat as described in the Ayurvedic texts.6 According to most authorities, the consumption of meat in Ayurveda is as a medicine, not a way of life—although this is an area of debate.
Even the Dalai Lama and many of the monks in Kashmir eat meat. If you are not totally offended by this option, try the 2-week red meat therapy to rebuild protein, reset fat burning, and stabilize blood sugar:
- Eat four ounces of red meat per day for two weeks, preferably at lunch.
- Have an extra protein source as part of a balanced breakfast and lunch, such as a protein shake (in protein powder, look for concentrates rather than isolates).
I have used this protocol numerous times for protein deficiencies and have yet to see anything short of miraculous.
- Red meat is the most acidic of all protein sources. The more acidic a substance, the deeper it penetrates the tissues and the better it stores. These foods go from more alkaline to more acidic: legumes, beans, seeds, nuts, eggs, chicken, fish, and red meat.7
- Alkaline foods are great cleansers. They flush lymph and detoxify. The more alkaline a food, the more efficiently it will remove waste and toxins.
- On the other hand, the more acidic a food, the more difficult it will be to remove or detoxify. While we may associate acidic foods with toxic or comfort foods, many acidic foods are actually healthy and essential.
- This is nature’s way of balancing: we help rebuild the body in fall and winter with acidic foods, and cleanse the body in spring and summer with alkaline foods. The principle of eating with the seasons is the main focus of my book The 3-Season Diet.
2. Vegetarian Strategy
Not all vegetarians I have treated were willing to do the meat protocol, so I have some alternative protein-rebuilding strategies.
While these vegetarian strategies do work, they never deliver the truly miraculous results I see with the two-week red meat therapy.
If eating meat is not an option for you, try the following:
- Have 3 whey, pea, rice, or hemp protein powder shakes per day (one with each meal) for a total of 75g 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.
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What’s A Balanced Diet?
While everyone has different needs based on factors including age, body type, dietary conditioning, genetics, and cultural background, for most people, the most balanced diet for health and longevity means most of your meals will consist of about 50% veggies, 25% non-processed starches (whole grains or starchy vegetables, such as potatoes, yams, or corn), and 25% protein, with 10% of the diet coming from animal sources.8, 9
Non-Vegetarian Protein Sources
Vegetarian Sources of Protein
- Whole grains: quinoa, buckwheat, amaranth, wheat, rice, corn, oats
- Sweet potato
If you have some of 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 see, protein levels can really make a difference in how you feel. You may notice this especially throughout the winter. Whatever your diet of choice, I hope you continue to stay balanced and use these tips to find what works for you. And remember, your feedback is always valued!
To dive deeper, take our Protein Deficiency Quiz.
For a more comprehensive understanding of how to remedy inadequate protein, download my free eBook The Protein Solution.