The notion that's often widely accepted about food in general is that "as long as your calories in, match your calories out, then you're considered healthy". Or that you need to pay attention to certain nutrients only if you're someone who does intense workouts or an athlete. But the truth is, food is meant to give us energy, and nutrients from food are actually involved in processes and functions in the body. Hormonal balance, optimal function of the adrenal glands, thyroid gland, the liver, etc and metabolic processes.
When it comes to protein, it's often assumed that if we're not working out regularly, or very active, then we don't need to pay attention to protein intake. But just like any other nutrient, protein has various specific roles in the body that are directly related to the function of some systems.
1. PROTEIN IS A BUILDING BLOCK FOR PRETTY MUCH EVERYTHING IN THE BODY:
Hair, nails, skin, connective tissue and muscles are all made up of protein. These parts of the body all regenerate daily too, so you can imagine why protein would be needed daily in our meals for this one very basic need. Indications that you might not be getting enough protein for these areas are:
Weak nails/nails that break easily
Breakage in strands of hair/hair growth is slow.
Scaring/wounds on the skin that are slow to heal.
Joint inflammation or pain.
Loss of muscle mass/muscle atrophy
Frequent bone fractures
2. PROTEIN IS NEEDED TO MAINTAIN BLOOD SUGAR BALANCE IN THE BODY:
When it comes to blood sugar, we don't often think about adding nutrients, but protein is actually a major nutrient that is needed in order to keep blood sugar levels from spiking too high and crashing down. Because [pure] protein doesn't breakdown into sugar, it not only doesn't create a sugar spike, but it also helps to bring stability to blood sugar levels too. Some indicators that you might not be getting enough protein to maintain blood sugar levels might be:
Sudden drops in energy levels
Frequent dizziness/nausea and headaches or migraines.
Don't often feel full or satiated after meals
3. PROTEIN HELPS TO CREATE STABLE ENERGY LEVELS IN THE BODY:
If protein helps to balance blood sugar levels, and blood sugar helps to create more stable energy, it can be said that protein intake can contribute to better energy, with not as many ups and downs or crashes. One of the fastest ways to check in with yourself about whether you're getting enough protein vs. your energy levels is noticing whether you're experiencing "crashes" throughout the day. Here are some other energy-related things to check in with yourself on:
When you first wake up, do you feel rested, or groggy and low energy?
After meals, do you feel energized, or do you feel like taking a nap?
Do you feel an energy "crash" during the day, or multiple crashes throughout the day?
Do you feel like you need to reach for something sweet or caffeinated in the afternoons?
4. PROTEIN IN MEALS HELPS TO KEEP US FEELING FULL AND SATISFIED FOR LONGER:
We often don't think of food in this way, but food is meant to make us feel satiated and to energize us. And so often do we eat food that does neither. One of the components of a meal that helps us to feel full for longer(rather than feeling hungry every hour or two) and that helps to give us stable energy through blood sugar balance is protein. Lots of different foods contain protein, but what we want to start including on our plates more often are protein sources that provide at least 20g of protein per meal. These include things like chicken, fish, grass-fed beef, lentils, beans, chickpeas, etc. Some indications that we might not be getting enough protein per meal are:
Frequently feeling hungry, even shortly after a meal.
"Crashes" in energy throughout the day
Having bursts of energy, followed by an energy slump in the day.
Difficulty falling asleep or staying asleep at night(related to blood sugar and hormonal imbalances caused by low protein levels in the day).
5. PROTEIN HELPS TO SUPPORT STRESS MANAGEMENT IN THE BODY:
Any time we experience stress(physical, mental or emotional), the body releases hormones that help to manage that stress inside the body(often referred to as the "fight or flight" response). One of the major glands that release these hormones are our adrenal glands, and protein is one of the main nutrients to support the proper functioning of them. This means that in order for the body to manage stress effectively, it requires a certain amount of protein(that isn't already being used for our hair growth, connective tissue, muscles, nails, and 50 other functions and systems) to be able to produce the hormones that help to keep our internal stress levels under control. You can start by paying attention to some of your body's signs and symptoms to gage your own internal stress, and then start being mindful of adding in more protein sources to support your body:
You're feeling like a "bottomless pit" and hungry all the time.
You're experiencing more intense cravings lately, either for sweet or very salty (note: if you're craving more salts, your body might need some more trace minerals found in sea salt or pink Himalayan salts and those help with stress management too).
You're having trouble with sleep, especially with waking up in the middle of the night or early morning.
You're experiencing more headaches and migraines than usual.