When we think protein, we think muscle. And while this nutrient is crucial for repairing, maintaining, and building muscle, it also offers a long list of other important functions.
“Protein helps our body maintain fluid and pH balance, structures our hair and nails, and supports organ function,” says Pamela Nisevich-Bede, M.S., R.D., C.S.S.D., owner of Swim, Bike, Run, Eat! Sports Nutrition. Because we need protein for so many things, it’s crucial, especially for active people—who are constantly breaking down and rebuilding muscle—to get enough of it in our diet.
“The minute we get up and start moving around and sweating, our protein needs go up,” says Nisevich-Bede. So unless you’re sitting in bed all day, chances are you’re not getting too much of the stuff. In fact, Nisevich-Bede recommends most people—like frequent exercisers, those looking to lose weight or maintain a lean physique, and the middle-aged or older—aim to eat close to one gram of protein per pound of bodyweight per day. (That’s 190 grams per day for a 190-pound lifting junkie, and 120 grams per day for a 120-pound runner. FYI: A four-ounce serving of chicken breast packs about 34 grams.)
If you’re consistently missing the mark on protein, your workouts will certainly be affected—but the negative impacts on your body don’t end there. Look out for these seven signs you’re not getting enough of this macro:
1. Your Workouts Have Been ‘Meh’
If you’re consistently feeling crummy in the gym or on runs, you may not be getting enough protein to support your efforts. “If your usual workouts feel more and more taxing and you’re not seeing results from intense exercise, the first thing you should do is look at your macronutrients,” says Nisevich-Bede.
According to a paper published in the Journal of the International Society of Sports Medicine, missing out on protein leaves the body without ample ability to build muscle, and with too little nitrogen, which can spur muscle breakdown, slow recovery, and tanking performance.
2. You’re Constantly Sore
While it’s totally normal to be can’t-get-up sore after trying a new workout or cranking up the intensity, something is off if you’re usual ‘ole workout is leaving your muscles wrecked. “If you’re doing the same workout day in and day out, you should be adapting and shouldn’t be constantly sore,” says Nisevich-Bede.
Soreness seems to be an indicator of the muscle breakdown that occurs during and after exercise, so feeling that pain all the time could mean you’re not getting the protein your muscles need to rebuild. Plus, protein is especially important for our recovery from exercise-related injuries, and falling short may even prolong or worsen those injuries, according to a review published in Sports Nutrition.
3. You’re Losing Muscle Instead Of Fat
Muscle breakdown doesn’t only impact how sore you feel, but it can also wreak havoc on your physique. When you don’t eat enough protein and can’t recover from your workouts properly, you may start to lose muscle mass—without losing an ounce of fat, says Nisevich-Bede.
So though the scale might not change much, the proportion of your body weight that comes from fat is increasing. And since how much muscle you have affects how many calories your body needs, melting muscle is a recipe for a metabolism slowdown and potential weight-gain.
4. You Feel Pooped All. The. Time.
Fatigue can be caused by a number of things, like dehydration or being low in iron—but if you feel wiped out all day long in addition to being sore and having lame workouts, inadequate protein is the likely culprit. “If you have that leaden leg feeling all the time, chances are your protein intake and overall recovery are lacking,” says Nisevich-Bede.
5. Your Sweat Smells Like Ammonia
No, you’re not crazy! Windex-like sweat is a very real thing—and it means your body is burning through your muscles for fuel when it doesn’t have another fuel source, like glycogen (energy stored from carbs) or amino acids (the molecules that make up proteins) available, says Nisevich-Bede. Having amino acids available during exercise helps keep muscle out of a catabolic state (a.k.a. breakdown-mode), according to research published in the International Journal of Sports Nutrition and Exercise Metabolism. So it’s no wonder why so many experts recommend your pre-workout fuel contains some protein.
6. You’re Under The Weather—A Lot
You’ve definitely never blamed a cold on not eating enough eggs or chicken breast, but protein has a very real influence on your immune system because it supports your organs and produces antibodies, which fight off harmful substances. “When you can’t maintain organs or antibodies, you’re at a disadvantage and can’t fight off infection very easily,” says Nisevich-Bede. Recent research has found that amino acids—especially arginine, glutamine, and cysteine—have a variety of immune functions, like activating T-cells, confirming that inadequate intake can increase our susceptibility to infectious disease. Yikes.
7. Your Hair And Nails Have Looked Better
Super dry hair or brittle nails? Since the structures of your hair, skin, and nails are made up of protein, extreme cases of not-enough-protein can have a very visible impact, according to Nisevich-Bede. Just as the body struggles to maintain muscle mass without enough protein, it struggles to keep up with the constant protein needs of our hair, skin, and nails. The amino acid cysteine is especially important because it provides rigidity to the protein keratin, which makes up your hair and nails, per research published in the Journal of Biochemistry.
How To Boost Your Protein Intake
If you’re falling way short on that one gram of protein per pound recommendation—and paying for it in and out of the gym—your first step to getting more of the good stuff is to look at your meals. “Make sure you’re getting lean proteins at breakfast, lunch, and dinner,” says Nisevich-Bede. While many women can get by with closer to 20 grams of protein at each meal, most guys should shoot for 30, she says.
We know breakfast is a toughie; Nisevich-Bede suggests incorporating eggs, Greek yogurt, or a smoothie with protein powder into your morning meal to make sure your protein intake is steady throughout the day.
And then come snacks, which are often more carb-y foods, like pretzels or fruit. To reach your daily needs, make sure even your in-between-meal eats contain some protein. Go for easy bites like half a turkey sandwich, a protein shake, or hummus with vegetables, Nisevich-Bede recommends.
If you’re still not sure how much of the macro you’re getting—or are having trouble hitting the mark—using a food-tracking app or meet with a dietitian who can help you get there.