Lately it seems like we’ve been living in some kind of protein dystopia. Supermarket shelves are weighed down with powders, bars, and drinks full of the stuff, and companies are increasingly trying to hook us in by pumping super-size doses into products like chips, coffee, and cookies. You can even buy protein beer, if that’s your thing.
The reason for the protein hysteria is that we need a lot of it. Current governmental recommendations hover around 0.36 grams daily per pound of body weight (about 65 grams for a 180-pound person), but many nutritionists feel that’s not enough. “Protein is the building block of DNA, and every single part of us has DNA,” says Monica Auslander, a Miami-based dietitian and founder of Essence Nutrition. And if you’re physically active, your protein needs are likely way way above average. “Nutritionally, it’s the fuel for thousands of metabolic functions in our body,” says Auslander. “Our cell systems require it to manufacture hormones, enzymes, bone, cartilage, skin, tissue, and blood.”
The best protein sources are real foods: dairy, meat, eggs, and the like. If you can get the nutrient that way, do it. If not, start considering your supplement options. (Make these muscle-building protein snacks with it.) To determine whether you’re hitting the mark, here are the protein-deficiency signs to watch for.
1. You’re not seeing noticeable gym gains
All of that time you’re logging in the weight room may be for nothing if you’re not getting enough protein, says Jim White, a registered dietician nutritionist and owner of Jim White Fitness and Nutrition Studios in Virginia Beach. Why? Because when your body is lacking protein, it will break down muscle fiber to get what it needs. It doesn’t matter how many reps you do—without protein, you won’t build brawn.
2. You’re sputtering out mid-workout
“When your muscles don’t have fuel, neither do you,” Auslander says. Plus, protein plays a critical role in how well your body absorbs other vital nutrients, like iron and calcium. When your nutrient tanks are low, your stamina suffers.
3. You feel sick often
If you’ve had to miss a few gym days because you’re under the weather, take a look at your diet. “Protein plays a very important role in the immune system,” White says, adding that it constructs the cells that keep you healthy. “So if you’re not consuming enough, you may frequently fall ill.”
4. You’re battling insomnia
Stress isn’t the only thing that can keep you awake at night. If your body thinks it’s starving, it wants you to eat—not sleep. Protein improves the feeling of post-meal satisfaction. Without that feeling, your body may have trouble settling into a deep and restorative resting state, Auslander says. That’s one reason you should consume protein at bedtime.
5. Your attitude sucks
Snapped at your significant other? Or the guy who spelled your name wrong on your Starbucks cup? Maybe you need a protein bar. By mitigating the effect of carbohydrates, slow-digesting protein helps keep your mood stable. “If your diet doesn’t have enough protein to stop insulin spikes and dips, your personality will definitely be affected,” Auslander says.
6. You keep injuring yourself
When you don’t get enough protein, your body has a hard time absorbing calcium, and that can lead to decreased bone mineral density, White says. To break it down: That means weaker bones, and a greater chance you’ll hurt yourself when you crank the treadmill up to sprinting speed.
7. And you’re slow to heal
Protein literally puts you back together. So if you suffer a cut, bruise, or scrape, the injury may stick around longer if there isn’t enough tissue-building material present to build new cells and tissue, White says.
8. Your scalp is showing
If you’re genetically prone to go bald, there’s almost nothing you can do to stop it. But for some of us, sudden hair loss could be a sign of a dietary deficiency. “Protein aids in your body’s ability to produce new cells, which means that without enough of it, you may experience thinning hair,” White says. Well, damn. Pass the whey. And while we’re on the cosmetic stuff, weak nails and dry skin can also signal low protein intake.
9. You can’t stop eating cookies
Carbs alone aren’t going to satisfy you, Auslander says. You need protein to feel full, and to signal to your body that you’re supplying it with the food it needs. If your brain is always in scavenger mode, you start to crave all the bad-for-you stuff (ahem, sugar).
10. You can’t focus
Protein is literal food for thought: Without it, the neurotransmitters in your brain can’t function properly. That means you’ll have trouble concentrating, and you’ll probably be easily distracted, White says. But if you made it this far in the story, then odds are your brain is working just fine.