We constantly hear about protein – how important it is for building muscle and losing weight, how we’re not getting enough of it, how it’s possible to have too much, the merits of plant-based versus animal-based protein, and on and on.
But here’s something we don’t hear about a lot – how to tell if our bodies are digesting all that protein effectively.
It’s great if we’re consuming the right amount of protein, but if our bodies aren’t using it properly, it’s not doing us as much good as it could.
“Even though we may eat tons of protein, a healthy body does a good job of utilizing the protein it needs and getting rid of the protein that it doesn't need,” explains Amanda A. Kostro Miller, RD, LDN, who serves on the advisory board for Smart Healthy Living.
“Enzymes are responsible for digesting specific nutrients, including protein. Some people may not be digesting and absorbing certain proteins efficiently and the body will indicate a potential deficiency with certain physiological signs,” says Lisa Richards, a nutritionist and author of The Candida Diet.
She says mood changes can be an early sign that you’re not digesting protein effectively, as well as swelling of the feet, which can indicate poor protein digestion because albumin, a protein in blood, is responsible for reducing fluid buildup.
Other proteins we might be able to visually tell we’re lacking include elastin, keratin and collagen, which make up our hair, skin, and nails. “Loss or thinning in these areas could indicate you are not digesting protein effectively,” Richards says, adding that nausea and gas can also signal difficulty digesting protein.
Kostro Miller elaborates on other signs that you may not be eating enough protein for your body’s needs, or that you are eating enough protein, but it’s not being digested properly:
- Dull hair/lack of shine
- Hair that can be plucked without pain
- Muscle loss or wasting in the temples, hands, clavicle or around the knees
- Frequent diarrhea
Kostro Miller notes that these symptoms can also occur when someone is suffering from a calorie or energy deficiency, or could be caused by other underlying health conditions. If you are experiencing any of these symptoms, she recommends seeing a doctor.
Getting enough protein
“The primary way to make sure you are getting in adequate protein is to ensure you are getting in all the essential amino acids. Out of 20 amino acids, there are nine that the body cannot make on its own, making it essential that they are consumed through the diet,” Richards says.
Every protein-rich food – think meat, eggs, beans, nuts, etc. – Kostro Miller explains, has a different amino acid profile. “Your body makes some, but not all, of the amino acids that you need. That’s why you need to diversify your protein intake as much as possible.” By eating a range of protein-rich foods, you’ll ensure you get a wider array of essential amino acids in your diet.
“Plant-based protein combinations that contain all essential nine amino acids are known as complete proteins. By combining certain foods, the vegan dieter can ensure they are taking in the right type and amount of protein. All animal-based proteins are considered complete proteins,” Richards explains.
To determine a person’s adequate protein requirement, she says the standard formula is: 0.8 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight.