The body needs protein for growth and maintenance of tissues and your body’s protein needs are dependent upon your health and activity level. It is also a building block for enzymes and hormones. For this reason, protein deficiency has a wide range of symptoms.
Different people have different protein requirements depending on their body weight, muscle mass, physical activity and age. Body weight is the most important determinant of protein requirements. The recommended protein amount is 0.8g per kilogramme of body weight. A deficiency is likely to occur when your intake is unable to meet your body’s requirements.
Julian Eyotaru, a nursing officer at Mwanamugimu Nutrition Unit at Mulago national referral Hospital, says a number of children in Uganda suffer from protein deficiency.
“When there is insufficient protein intake (kwashiorkor), the body takes protein from skeletal muscles to preserve more important tissues and body functions. As a result, lack of protein leads to muscle wasting over time, which may delay or prevent growth in children,” he says, adding that the deficiency also causes wasting away in elderly people. A slight increase in protein intake may slow the muscle degeneration that comes with old age.
Skin, hair problems
Besides underdevelopment in children, kwashiorkor also often leaves its mark on the skin, hair and nails, which are largely made of protein. It leads to hair thinning, faded hair colour, hair loss and brittle nails in both children and adults. This is one of the commonest symptoms among children that suffer from protein deficiency.
With a protein deficiency, says Dr Denis Katanku Musoga, a nutritionist at the Uganda Heart Institute, the bones are also at risk.
“Insufficient protein intake has been linked to a lower bone mineral density and an increased risk of fractures. This is the more reason menopausal women are advised to increase their protein intake to reduce their risk of hip fractures,” he adds.
This increases the risk or severity of infections because the white blood cells are easily weakened. Respiratory tract infections easily attack people with such a deficiency and they take long to heal. There are both plant and animal sources from which we can obtain proteins.
Animal based sources
Healthy sources of protein such as free-range eggs, and grass-fed meat are also a good source of zinc, which is necessary for making proteins. Lean meats, such as chicken, turkey, fish, milk and dairy products are rich protein sources. These are great sources of protein, omega-3 fatty acids, vitamin B12, niacin, zinc, iron and many other minerals.
When you consider beef or poultry, ensure that you choose lean cuts, and grill it or trim off all the fat from the meat before you cook it.
Katanku says, “With the health message going around the world, more people are now taking on vegetables, legumes and other plant based sources to avail their daily nutritional needs because plant proteins are said to be safer than animal protein. ”
Plant based sources
Legumes such as lentils, peas, chickpeas and beans are great protein sources.
Eyotaru says: “Most dark-colored, leafy greens and vegetables contain protein. Eaten alone, these foods are not enough to meet daily protein requirements, but a few vegetable snacks can increase protein intake, particularly when combined with other protein-rich foods. Broccoli, kale and mushrooms are good protein sources.”
Other plant-based protein sources include grains and cereals such as oats, millet, sorghum, maize; peanuts; fruits such as guavas, avocados, oranges, bananas, chia seeds.
Tempeh, tofu and texturised soy protein are good alternatives for meat. “These are high in protein, probiotics (live bacteria which are beneficial to the digestive health) and are a source of minerals such as magnesium, phosphorus and manganese,” says Eyotaru.
How much protein do we need?
Each person is unique in terms of their exact protein needs; your body weight, gender, age, and level of activity or exercise all determine how much protein is best for you, and your needs likely vary a bit day to day.
• According to experts, the recommended daily minimum intake of protein for adults who are at an average weight and activity level is 56 grammes per day for men, and 46 grammes per day for women.
• These amounts are equal to eating about 0.36 grammes of protein for every kilogramme that you weigh.
•Remember that most experts recommend consuming about 20 to 30 per cent of your overall calories from protein foods.