While protein needs vary by individual, based on both body weight and activity level, researchers agree that getting an adequate amount is crucial to maintaining a lean, fat-burning physique and preserving muscle strength as we age.
Not sure if you are eating enough protein to fuel your fitness and body composition goals? Watch for these nine warning signs.
Your workouts are suffering.1 of 10
Most of us know the importance of protein in building new muscle mass, but it also plays a key role in sustaining energy and motivation. A diet that's too low in protein can result in muscle wasting (or muscle atrophy) as your body cannibalizes the tissue for fuel. Without an adequate supply of protein to help your muscles repair damage, you can workout more, yet see less results if your diet doesn't support your energy needs—talk about a serious buzz kill to your motivation.
You're experiencing unexpected mood swings or anxiety.2 of 10
Did you snap at your coworkers or at the guy in the coffee shop who cut in line? You might just need a protein pick-me-up. Protein helps the brain to synthesize hormones like serotonin that help regulate feelings of calm and positivity. And by mitigating the spikes and crashes of insulin from the carbohydrates in your diet, protein helps keep your mood stable.
You're constantly injured.3 of 10
Let's face it: Being injured sucks. We can't make as much progress towards our goals when we are forced to take time off from the sports and activities we love. A lack of protein in your diet can raise your risk for muscle loss, slow bone healing and contribute to bone weakness, fractures and osteoporosis. When you don't get enough protein, the body also has difficulty absorbing calcium, which can lead to weaker bones and an increased risk of injury.
You can't stop snacking.4 of 10
If it's 9 a.m. at the office and you can't keep yourself from raiding the snack drawer every 30 minutes, take a look at your breakfast. If we don't give our bodies a healthy supply of protein, we experience the rapid spikes and crashes of insulin that cause intense cravings for carb-heavy foods. Since protein helps to stabilize our blood sugar and slow digestion, for each meal or snack, make sure you have all three macronutrients represented—protein, healthy fats and carbs—to avoid those rapid energy crashes and keep you feeling satisfied.
You're not seeing the gains (you're more "scrawny" than "strong").5 of 10
Those extra reps in the gym may be for nothing if you aren't giving your body the raw material it needs to build muscle. When your body is lacking in protein, it will begin to cannibalize existing muscle tissue to get what it needs. Regardless of how many reps you do, without adequate protein, you won't build brawn.
You can see your scalp.6 of 10
As it turns out, even the fanciest shampoo and conditioner can't hold a candle to the power of protein in creating luxurious locks. Protein is a main component of each strand of hair on our heads, and noticing changes in our hair can give us clues as to how much protein we need to add to our diets. When our body isn't receiving an adequate supply of protein, it starts pulling it from "non-essential" body parts—like hair. And once your hair is unable to get the nutrients it needs, it begins thinning or even falling out. If you've been noticing more hair in the shower drain than usual, check to make sure you are getting enough protein in your diet.
Brain fog is a daily occurrence.7 of 10
When your body attempts to manage the spike-and-crash hit from carbohydrates, your brain has to manage its own ups-and-downs as it alternates between short bursts of mental clarity and the dreaded "brain fog." Without a good source of protein in each meal to mitigate the rapid fluctuations in blood sugar, your brain can go from focused to fuzzy in no time, leaving you feeling foggy and slow in that mid-morning meeting.
Eating protein with our carbs helps release the carbs into the body at a slower pace, giving us a steady supply of energy and keeping our brain focused. If you are constantly feeling fuzzy and crabby as you go through your day, make sure you are consuming enough protein at each meal.
You've got some serious bloat happening.8 of 10
One of protein's little known superpowers is that it helps the body reduce edema, or fluid accumulation, particularly in the feet and ankles. Protein helps to hold salt and water inside your blood vessels; without enough of this macronutrient, those fluids can seep into surrounding tissues and cause uncomfortable swelling of the lower extremities. If you've noticed that your feet and ankles are more puffy than usual, it might be time to reexamine your diet.
You crave it.9 of 10
Our bodies often know what we need for optimal health and will send us signals when we aren't fueling ourselves properly. If you're suddenly craving protein-rich foods, it may be your body's way of telling you it's lacking this nutrient. If your daydreams start to include a big juicy steak or roast chicken, honor your body's cravings and load up on the protein. You can also stick to vegetarian options such as tofu, Greek yogurt or hummus.