Of the three macronutrients (carbs, fat, protein) our bodies need, protein seems to hog most of the spotlight. (Unless we’re talking about keto, of course.) Though long regarded as something only bodybuilders needed to worry about, protein supports general health and well-being in a number of ways. Fail to get enough and you’ll face serious consequences.
How Protein Benefits Your Body
Muscle isn’t the only tissue in your body protein helps build. In fact, protein contributes the ingredients (in the form of amino acids) needed to keep all the tissues and cells in your body healthy. “Protein provides the structural basis for not only muscle tissue, but also red blood cells, tendons, hormones, enzymes, and antibodies,” says Kelly Pritchett, Ph.D., R.D., director of sports nutrition at Central Washington University.
In other words: Protein keeps all the cells and tissues in your body humming along.
Your body also uses this key macronutrient for other cool things, including:
- transporting nutrients
- keeping skin and hair healthy
- as a last-ditch energy source when other fuel sources are depleted (like during endurance exercise)
How Much Protein You Need
Since all the cells in your body constantly use and break down protein, you need a steady intake of it to ensure your cells maintain their structure and function, says Michael D. Roberts, Ph.D., director of the Molecular and Applied Sciences Laboratory at Auburn University.
2018 research published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition found that most Americans eat more than the minimum daily recommendation of protein. (That’s 46 grams a day for women and 56 grams a day for men, according to the National Institutes of Health.)
Read More: 8 Surprising Sources Of Protein
However, some groups—like the International Society of Sports Nutrition—suggests adults aim higher. (Like closer to 95 grams per day for a 150-pound person.)
That’s easier said than done—especially if you have certain dietary restrictions. One 2016 review published in The Journal of the American Osteopathic Association, for example, warns that cutting animal products from your diet can put you at a higher risk of protein deficiency.
What Happens When You Don’t Get Enough Protein
Given everything protein does for your body, falling short can have a few not-so-pleasant side effects. Though true deficiency (which is associated with serious issues like liver disease) is uncommon in the U.S. these days, falling short on your needs can lead to a slew of other problems.
1. Muscle Loss
“When we don’t get enough protein, the lack of amino acids leads to increased breakdown of body proteins,” Pritchett says. One of the biggest victims: muscle tissue.
If you strength train regularly (the CDC recommends training all muscle groups at least twice per week), you already break down muscle more than non-lifters. That means it’s especially important to keep your protein intake in the black. After all, your body needs plenty of building blocks to rebuild and repair that broken-down muscle tissue so it can grow back bigger and stronger.
Even if you’re not a gym-goer, though, you still need to consume adequate protein to maintain the muscle you have. One American Journal of Clinical Nutrition study, for instance, found that when elderly women ate a low-protein diet for nine weeks, they lost a whopping 14 percent of their muscle mass.
Lose any amount of muscle and you may find that once-mundane daily tasks—like walking up a flight of stairs or getting out of a chair—become more challenging. In fact, age-related muscle loss (a.k.a. sarcopenia) is one of the main reasons older adults can’t move around without help, according to a Current Opinion in Rheumatology review.
2. Lowered Immunity
Aside from muscle, the amino acids in protein also help build and maintain healthy immune cells. Eat too little protein and you risk weakening your immune system, making it hard for you to fight off infections.
Animal research, like this Journal of Infectious Diseases study, shows that mice given very low-protein diets exhibit more severe flu symptoms—the result of having lower levels of antibodies, compounds that fight infection. However, once the mice were given higher-protein diets, their ability to fend off the virus improved.
3. Weakened Bones
Calcium and vitamin D typically get all the credit for building strong bones. However, protein is key for keeping bones healthy, too.
In fact, as long as calcium levels are solid, higher protein intake is associated with higher bone mineral density (a determinant of bone health), slower bone loss, and lower hip fracture risk in older adults, per one 2018 Osteoporosis International review.
4. Increased Hunger
Meals that contain protein leave you better satiated than those that rely on carbs and fat alone. (This is good news for anyone striving to lose body fat or maintain a healthy weight.)
Skimp on this macronutrient, though, and you may find yourself at the vending machine (or fridge) shortly after meals.
Case in point: Per one 2007 Journal of Nutrition study, men reported higher hunger ratings while on a low-protein diet than they did while on a high-protein diet. If greater feelings of hunger lead to increased food consumption in the long run, weight gain can certainly follow.
How To Make Sure You Get Enough Protein
Now that you (hopefully) appreciate the importance of protein for your health and fitness, make sure your intake is solid.
Aim for the International Society of Sports Nutrition‘s recommendation of 1.4 to 2 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight per day.
Read More: 6 Questions To Ask Before Buying A Protein Powder
To figure out what that means for you, divide your weight (in pounds) by 2.2 to get your weight in kilograms. (If you weigh 150 pounds, that’s approximately 68 kilograms.) Then, multiply that number by 1.4 to calculate your minimum daily needs. (If you’re 150 pounds, that’s a minimum of 95.2 grams per day.)
To hit that number, try to consume at least 25 grams of protein at every meal. (You’ll want to incorporate it into your snacks, too.) Still stuck? Check out these nine easy ways to increase your protein intake.
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