Every winter I find myself treating an inordinate number of patients for protein deficiency. Most of them are quite health-aware and have made conscious decisions as to what they include—and don’t include—in their diets. But somehow, despite their best intentions, they find themselves with this very significant deficiency.
Many of these patients are vegetarian. Others—perhaps the majority—have stopped eating red meat years ago but continue to eat chicken or fish once in a while. Though it is my personal belief that a vegetarian diet may be the healthiest, it seems there is something in the way we are doing it that leaves us vulnerable to protein deficiency and its consequences.
- Why is protein deficiency so common?
- Telltale signs of protein deficiency
- Effective protein-building strategies
Watch the video below and/or read on:
Why is Protein Deficiency so Common?
Interestingly, many traditional Asian cultures seem to do well eating a vegetarian diet. So why can’t we eat that same way and thrive? No doubt our genetics have something to do with it. Books like The Blood Type Diet and other body typing systems, including Ayurveda, have contributed many insights into this question.
Something not often brought up, however, is that most traditional Asian cultures still have someone in the family who cooks full-time. On my journeys to India I’ve observed that the cooks start cooking breakfast before anyone else is awake. Right after breakfast they start preparing lunch. After lunch, they are off to the market to buy food, and then right back at it to prepare supper.
By contrast, many of us here are too busy to cook and eating out has become the standard fallback. We race from one activity to the next, eating just to “fill the tank” for the next activity. Dining and enjoying a relaxed, home-cooked meal is becoming less and less common. As for the family cook, many parents have silently been elected the family superhero: holding down a job, driving and picking up kids, coordinating all of their activities and, oh yes, cooking for the entire tribe. Needless to say, this doesn’t leave much time for balanced meal preparation.
In trying to whip up our meals in minutes, we may be sacrificing our nutritional health.
I often say that to be a good vegetarian you need to cook at least two hours a day. That’s not to propose a strict numbers rule, simply to emphasize that being a healthy vegetarian takes extra work. And when we consider our current lifestyles, it’s not surprising that many of us don’t have the time for cooking, and our health may suffer for it.
So, how can you tell if you are protein deficient? Here are the signs:
The following discusses signs of mild and/or chronic protein deficiencies. Find a list of severe and/or acute deficiency symptoms at the end of this article.
Chronic Protein Deficiency Sign #1: Constant Craving
Carbs, sweets, caffeine, chocolate, pop, candy, pastries, or chips; constant cravings for these non-nutritional foods point to unstable blood sugar. Not everyone with cravings is protein deficient (otherwise we would really be looking at a country-wide epidemic!), but protein deficiency and unstable blood sugar are intimately linked.
~Blood Sugar Stability/ Protein Deficiency Home Assessment~
This short assessment may help discover a blood sugar imbalance that a blood test might not pick up.
1. If you are a vegetarian or rarely eat meat and have a craving for carbs and just don’t feel satisfied until you are filled up on breads, pastas or sweets, you may have unstable blood sugar that may be due to a deficiency of protein.
2. If you are a vegetarian and have a secret stash of candy, jelly beans or dark chocolate, you may have unstable blood sugar that may be due to a deficiency of protein.
3. Try eating 3 meals a day without snacks. If you find you need to nibble or graze on anything other than water, you may have unstable blood sugar that may be due to a deficiency of protein.
4. A blood test is most conclusive and indicated for anyone concerned about their blood sugar.
Chronic Protein Deficiency Sign #2: Muscle and/or Joint Pain
About fifteen years ago I had a sudden attack of severe neck pain. I got a massage, saw a few chiropractors, and got Rolfed, but nothing seemed to touch this pain. I remember it was in the fall because I had the thought that I might be protein deficient!
According to Ayurveda, during fall and winter the body starts to store proteins and fats to insulate and rebuild the body during the cold winter months. The body stores much of its protein reserves in the synovial fluid around the joints, to be used to rebuild the muscles and joints after strenuous exercise. When one is protein deficient, this reserve is the first to go. As a result, the joints stiffen and the muscles tighten. This kind of pain does not typically respond to standard musculoskeletal care.
I went down the checklist:
Yes, I had been a vegetarian for many years.
Yes, I did have a sweet tooth and loved carbs.
Yes, I was becoming a snacker.
Yes, it was winter and my joints were stiff and unresponsive to standard care.
The day I realized I might be protein deficient, I had two large whey protein powder shakes and added significantly more protein to my diet. With no exaggeration, my pain was gone by the end of that day. It just left. No pills or herbs, just more protein!
Ayurvedic Meat Eaters
Ayurveda is a vegetarian system of medicine. In fact, cows are sacred and it is just not cool to eat them. But in the case of protein deficiency, Ayurvedic doctors will prescribe the medicinal eating of red meat. One of the prescriptions I learned to resolve a protein deficiency is this:
Eat 4 ounces of red meat at the midday meal, each day for two weeks.
As a medicine, not a way of life.
I have used this recipe numerous times for protein deficiencies with amazing results. That said, not all of the vegetarians I have treated were willing to do this, so below I have suggested alternative protein rebuilding strategies.
Why Red Meat?
- Red meat is the most acidic of all meats and of all protein sources in general. The more acidic a substance, the deeper it penetrates the tissues and the better it is stored.
- Alkaline foods are great cleansers. They flush the lymph and help the body detoxify. The more alkaline a food or diet, the more efficiently it will remove waste and toxins.
- On the other hand, the more acidic a food is, the less easy it will be to remove or detoxify. While we tend to associate the notion of “acidic foods” with toxic or comfort foods, many acidic foods are actually very healthy and essential.
- This is nature’s way of balancing: we help rebuild the body in the winter with naturally occurring acidic foods and cleanse the body in the spring and summer with naturally occurring alkaline foods.
Consider: If a squirrel ate only broccoli in the winter, the squirrel would freeze to death. Luckily, nature does not make broccoli available in the colder winter months. The harvest during a cold winter was traditionally loaded with meats, grains, and root veggies—all primarily acidic, rich in protein, and rebuilding. This principle of eating naturally with the seasons is the main focus of my book, The 3-Season Diet.
Options for Treating Protein Deficiency
1. Medicinal Red Meat. Even the Dalai Lama and many of the monks in Kashmir eat meat. If you are not totally offended by this option try the two week red meat blood plan to rebuild protein and stabilize blood sugar: Eat 4 ounces of red meat a day for 2 weeks, preferably at lunch.
I believe this medicinal program is best and most effective when implemented with great respect and gratitude for the animal that gave its life to help yours.
2. Vegetarian Alternatives. If eating meat is not an option for you, try the following:
Have 3 whey, pea, rice, or hemp protein powder shakes a day; one with each meal.
Eat off the winter grocery list (see the winter grocery list from The 3-Season Diet in the library at LifeSpa.com) and emphasize the vegetarian proteins and fats listed.
Eat more of the high protein foods listed below.
- Seeds, sprouted
- Whole grains (in order from highest to lowest protein content): Wheat, amaranth, oats, rye, triticale, teff, spelt, wild rice, barley, buckwheat, quinoa, millet, sorghum, corn, rice.
- Sweet potato
Note: This article focuses less on severe and/or acute protein deficiency, and more so on mild and/or chronic, sub-clinical deficiencies that may contribute to numerous other chronic health issues. Below is a list of symptoms related to severe protein deficiency.
Symptoms of Severe Protein Deficiency:
- Edema (swelling)
- Thinning brittle hair and/or hair loss
- Ridges in finger and toe nails
- Skin rashes; dry skin
- Weak and tired
- Muscle soreness and cramps
- Slow healing
- Skin ulcers
- Sleep issues
If you have these symptoms and suspect you may not be getting adequate protein, please see your primary healthcare provider for a blind test and evaluation of your total serum protein.
As you can see, your protein levels can really make a difference in how you feel, especially throughout the winter. Whatever your diet of choice, I hope you continue to stay balanced and use these tips to help find what works for you. And remember, your feedback is always valued!