Do You Need To Eat More Protein? The Top Signs You Aren’t Getting Enough Of This Vital Nutrient
As a functional medicine expert, I understand the intricate balance of nutrients required by your body to thrive. Protein is one essential macronutrient that gets a lot of attention in both mainstream and holistic medicine in regards to how much is enough and how much is too much. But I’ll let you in on a little secret: there is no one right answer. Just like everything else in functional medicine, protein intake can vary between individuals but one thing is certain - identifying the right amount of protein for you and your health case is essential for optimal well being. Read on to learn more about protein, its importance, and how much you should really be eating to avoid deficiencies.
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What is protein and what does it do in your body?
Alongside carbohydrates and fats, protein is one of the three major macronutrients that your body needs to function optimally. Proteins are large, complex molecules made up of smaller units called amino acids. These amino acids are often described as the "building blocks" of proteins because they are combined together in specific sequences to form over 10,000 different types (1) of proteins in your body.
Since proteins are found in every single cell of your body, they play a variety of critical roles necessary for your body to thrive:
- Muscle health: Protein is the cornerstone of muscle tissue. It repairs and builds muscle fibers, making it essential for athletes, fitness enthusiasts, and anyone looking to maintain strength and vitality.
- Hormone production: Proteins, specifically amino acids, are crucial for hormone synthesis, helping regulate everything from metabolism to mood.
- Immune support: Many components of your immune system, including antibodies, are protein-based. Eating enough protein fuels your immune system so you can effectively fight off infections and illnesses.
- Tissue repair: Beyond muscles, protein is essential for the repair and maintenance of skin, hair, nails, and wound healing.
- Energy production: In times of low carbohydrate availability, your body can convert amino acids from proteins into glucose for energy in a process known as gluconeogenesis.
- Cellular health: Every single cell of your body contains protein and they are involved in transmitting signals between cells, helping regulate processes like cell growth and division.
How much protein should you eat every day?
The daily protein requirement varies depending on several factors, including age, sex, activity level, and your overall health goals but for the average adult the Recommended Dietary Allowance (RDA) (2) for protein is 0.8 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight per day.
However, many health experts, including nutritionists, dietitians, and fitness professionals, suggest that individual protein needs can often exceed the RDA, leading many of us to be lacking in protein without even realizing it.
This is due to the fact that each individual utilizes protein differently, especially as we age. The older you are, the more protein you may need since your body doesn’t use it as efficiently to maintain muscle tone and perform other functions. In the end, following the daily recommended protein intake is more of a guideline rather than an absolute for everyone across the board to avoid major deficiencies that can lead to:
- Muscle weakness
- Brittle hair
- Chronic fatigue
- Dry skin
- Weak nails
- Mood swings
- Frequent illness
To determine your specific protein requirements, I recommend working with a functional medicine practitioner who can assess your individual needs based on your health case and specific goals. You can also use an app like MyFitnessPal that can calculate your ideal daily protein intake based on your age, activity levels, and goals and help you track your macros each day.
How to get more protein
Not all protein is created equally. Your body requires 20 amino acids to function - 11 that your body produces on its own, and 9 that you must get through food since our body doesn’t produce them on its own. These are known as essential amino acids and include:
- Valine: Responsible for energy production and muscle growth. (3)
- Threonine: Plays a role in fat metabolism as well as helping to create collagen structure for skin and connective tissue health. (4)
- Tryptophan: As a precursor to your neurotransmitter serotonin, tryptophan helps regulate your sleep and mood. (5)
- Methionine: Essential for tissue growth. (6)
- Isoleucine: Helps to regenerate muscle tissue. (7)
- Lysine: Plays a role in both energy production and protein synthesis. (8)
- Histidine: This amino acid produces histamine, which is a compound involved in immune responses. (9)
- Phenylalanine: A precursor to your neurotransmitters dopamine, epinephrine, norepinephrine, and tyrosine. (10)
- Leucine: Helps with muscle health and protein synthesis. (11)
Certain protein sources have some essential amino acids, but not all of them. A complete protein is a food that contains all 9 essential amino acids. These include both plant and animal-based sources:
- Dairy products (milk, cheese)
- Nutritional yeast
- Sacha inchi seeds
Ultimately, a balanced diet that includes a variety of protein sources from both animal and plant-based foods is essential to ensure you get an adequate intake of all essential amino acids. The reality is, for most people eating a variety of protein sources is enough to ensure you are getting in all 9 essential amino acids without having to stress about only eating foods that are considered a complete protein source.
Also, it’s important to remember, it's not just about quantity when it comes to protein - quality matters too. Choosing organic, pasture-raised, and sustainably sourced protein options ensures you're not only benefiting your health but also supporting ethical and environmentally responsible practices.
From its essential role in building muscle and repairing tissues to the subtle signals of deficiency, protein's influence on our lives cannot be overstated. Remember, your body is a well-oiled machine, and it thrives on the right amount of every single nutrient. Whether you are an athlete striving to build muscle, looking to shed a few pounds, or simply aiming for optimal health, understanding the importance of protein and recognizing the signs of deficiency can help you identify the steps you need to take to optimize your health.
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- Ponomarenko, Elena A et al. “The Size of the Human Proteome: The Width and Depth.” International journal of analytical chemistry vol. 2016 (2016): 7436849. doi:10.1155/2016/7436849
- Wu, Guoyao. “Dietary protein intake and human health.” Food & function vol. 7,3 (2016): 1251-65. doi:10.1039/c5fo01530h
- National Center for Biotechnology Information. PubChem Database. Valine, CID=6287, https://pubchem.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/compound/L-valine#section=Top (accessed on August 2023)
- National Center for Biotechnology Information. PubChem Database. L-Threonine, CID=6288, https://pubchem.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/compound/L-threonine (accessed on August 2023)
- National Center for Biotechnology Information. PubChem Database. Tryptophan, CID=6305, https://pubchem.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/compound/L-tryptophan (accessed on August 2023)
- National Center for Biotechnology Information. PubChem Database. Methionine, CID=6137, https://pubchem.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/compound/L-methionine (accessed on August 2023)
- National Center for Biotechnology Information. PubChem Database. l-Isoleucine, CID=6306, https://pubchem.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/compound/l-isoleucine (accessed on August 2023)
- National Center for Biotechnology Information. PubChem Database. Lysine, CID=5962, https://pubchem.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/compound/L-lysine (accessed on August 2023)
- National Center for Biotechnology Information. PubChem Database. Histidine, CID=6274, https://pubchem.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/compound/L-histidine (accessed on August 2023)
- National Center for Biotechnology Information. PubChem Database. Phenylalanine, CID=6140, https://pubchem.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/compound/L-phenylalanine (accessed on August 2023)
- National Center for Biotechnology Information. PubChem Database. Leucine, CID=6106, https://pubchem.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/compound/L-leucine (accessed on August 2023)
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BY DR. WILL COLE
Dr. Will Cole, DNM, IFMCP, DC is a leading functional medicine expert who consults people around the globe, starting one of the first functional medicine telehealth centers in the world. Named one of the top 50 functional and integrative doctors in the nation, Dr. Will Cole provides a functional medicine approach for thyroid issues, autoimmune conditions, hormonal imbalances, digestive disorders, and brain problems. He is the host of the popular The Art Of Being Well podcast and the New York Times bestselling author of Intuitive Fasting, Ketotarian, The Inflammation Spectrum and the brand new book Gut Feelings: Healing the Shame-Fueled Relationship Between What You Eat and How You Feel.
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