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Most people get all the protein they need — and more — without even trying. That doesn't necessarily include you, though. Could a lack of protein be keeping you from reaching your weight loss goals, and what else could a protein deficiency mean for you?

So, you're trying to lose weight and are now panicking about a possible protein deficiency, wondering if it could be holding you back from reaching your scale- and health-related goals? A weight loss "journey" is a great opportunity to reevaluate your overall health and life, so let's delve right in!

What is a protein deficiency?

The English word "protein" comes from the Greek "proteios" — which means "primary". Made up of different amino acids, proteins are indeed building blocks we need to keep every aspect of our bodies functional, from muscle to bone, and from skin to hair and internal organs. Because the body doesn't make the nine essential amino acids (histidine, isoleucine, leucine, lysine, methionine, phenylalanine, threonine, tryptophan, and valine) by itself, we've got to get them from the foods we eat. 

You may well have heard that the bast majority of people get all the protein they need — and often, more — from their natural diet, without really even trying, and that's true. Most modern humans living in developed nations have a higher risk of getting too much protein than too little, and an excess of protein can lead to undesirable outcomes like type 2 diabetes, cancer, cardiovasular disease, and of course all-round early death. 

You don't want too much protein, then, but you also certainly don't want a situation where you get too little, a situation around a billion people all around the globe find themselves in. A severe protein deficiency can have far-reaching health consequences, marked by symptoms like:

  • Edema — fluid build-up that leads to swelling in areas like the abdomen, hands, and skin. 
  • Weakened muscles and loss of muscle loss. 
  • A weakened immune system that means you get sick more often, something that develops because antibodies require protein, too. 
  • Feeling cranky and irritable and generally being in poor mental health. 
  • In children, growth stunting. 
  • Organ failure, and even ultimately death. 

While severe protein deficiencies caused by an inadequate diet are highly unusual in modern developed nations, not everyone gets the protein they need. 

Who may not be getting enough protein?

The message that most people get more than enough protein through their diets — even if they just eat what they want without keeping track — is so loud that you may forget to consider the option that you may not be one of those folks.

Vegans and vegetarians are among the people who may not be getting enough protein from their daily diets unless they make a conscious choice to make this a priority. I know that's not what most of you want to hear, but I'm saying this not as a ravenous and meat-loving omnivore, but as a vegetarian who discovered that I wasn't hitting my protein targets. 

Keep in mind that so-called "complete" proteins, which include all the amino acids you need for good health, come from animal sources, whether they're meat or eggs and dairy. The plant proteins a lot of people eating plant-based diets will tell you are perfect replacements for these animal proteins actually aren't, with the sole exception of soy. The others — things like beans, legumes, whole grains, and nuts — actually don't come with all amino acids you need, making them "incomplete" proteins. This basically means that, to get all the amino acids you need, you don't just need to eat a lot of plant proteins, but also a wide variety of different ones. 

Older people — those over 51 but especially those over 71 — are also at risk of falling short of recommended daily protein amounts. One study found that the very oldest adults often get about half the protein they should, in fact. Reasons include physical illness, low appetite, being unable to prepare food independently, mental health struggles, and financial woes.

That doesn't mean that you're definitely getting enough protein if you're not vegan, vegetarian, or older. Anyone who doesn't get enough protein... doesn't get enough protein. This may be a result of dietary choices or habits, or of food insecurity.

How much protein should you be getting?

United States guidelines recommend that you get (at least) 0.8 grams of protein a day for every kilo of body weight. The exact amount varies, however, with men generally needing more than women but pregnant and lactating women benefiting from at least a gram of protein a day per kilo of body weight. People over 70 actually need this same amount, too. 

Don't want to calculate what that amounts to for you personally? Don't worry — plenty of apps and websites will help you determine your recommended daily protein intake! You can also look at it slightly differently, though, and aim for two to three servings of protein during mealtime each day. 

Where should I be getting my protein from?

The simple answer is "from a variety of foods". Not only will this help you turn incomplete proteins into complete ones if you're vegan or vegetarian, variety also helps you meet your numerous other nutritional requirements.

Meats like beef, pork, veal, chicken, turkey, various kinds of fish, and other seafoods like crab and squid can all be good sources of protein. So can eggs and dairy products like cheese and milk. Soy — which can come as beans, tofu, milk, and in many other forms — is also a complete protein. Legumes and beans, like chickpeas, lentils, kidney beans, and so on, will help you out too, along with all kinds of nuts and seeds. 

Remember that numerous apps and sites — both free and paid — are out there, just waiting for you to sign up to help you keep track of your diet. It's not those apps we're advertising, in case you're wondering (we're not recommending any particular one), but the valuable insights you can gain from knowing exactly what you are eating. When you find out you're not doing as well as you could be, you can make the changes your health needs. 

Could my low protein intake be hindering my weight loss efforts?

You bet! Proteins keep you fuller for longer when compared to other macronutrients, especially carbohydrates. There's a reason people often recommend starting your day off with a protein-heavy breakfast! When you have had your fill of protein, you won't be hungry for a good while. That means — and yes, I speak from personal experience — that you'll stay off the empty carbs and sugary stuff, even if they're sitting right there and you're generally totally into them. 

There's another thing, though, and that's that it actually takes more energy to metabolize protein than other macronutrients. That basically means your body burns more calories after you eat protein than after eating other things, which all goes towards weight loss. 

While getting enough protein means you're helping your body lose weight — as long as you're burning more calories than you take in, of course — the opposite means that you could indeed be hindering your weight loss efforts.

All this doesn't, in any way, mean you should go top-heavy on the protein and neglect other stuff. Weight loss comes from making sure you burn more calories than you take in, yes, and from realizing that not all calories are equal. It's best attempted in the context of striving for overall better health, and that means giving all the different nutrients you need some love. 

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