Protein Deficiency in Women: What You Need To Know

It’s easier to convince men to include more proteins in their diet as it helps them build more muscle, but it’s not so easy with us women. We love to tinker around with calories, fats and carbs and not worry too much about our protein intake. Most of us even believe that proteins can just help us get more muscles and nothing else.

But, nothing can be further from the truth.

Women need proteins more than men, whatever their age and activity levels. They need protein to ovulate properly, control blood sugar levels, have optimum immunity, keep stubborn weight off and have stronger bones.

This is the reason protein is now taking over the headlines where women’s health and fitness is concerned.

A Protein primer

While most if not all women, know about low and high-calorie foods as well as saturated and unsaturated fats, not many know enough about protein.

In the most simple terms, proteins are made of amino-acids and there are nine essential amino acids that all of us- women and men should be eating. Why? Because our bodies can’t make the essential amino acids by themselves, so we are dependent on a protein-rich diet to source these amino acids.

Yet, are women getting this most important macronutrient in required quantities?

The answer to this is a “NO”. According to the IMRB’s ‘Understanding Protein Myths & Gaps among Indians’ study:

  • Approximately 62% of pregnant women and breastfeeding  mothers have a protein deficiency

  • Only 52% of mothers of 8-15year olds associate protein with health

  • Working women and housewives are found to be suffering from 70-80% protein deficiency

Why women need protein?

This is what protein does for all- men and women:

It helps grow and maintain just about every part of our bodies — from our skin and hair to our digestive enzymes; haemoglobin, and immune system antibodies...

Additionally, protein makes muscles, tissues and hormones and is also critical for good heart and brain function.

And this is what protein does SPECIFICALLY for women:

  1. Helps maintain your muscle and increases strength

Women lose a lot of muscle, especially if they are sedentary and not eating healthy- think chips and burgers, all the time.

Even otherwise, the body is constantly breaking down muscle and re-building it, and you as a woman need enough protein to stop it from losing muscle and in fact gain muscle.

Loss of muscle makes you unhealthy and fat with symptoms like decreased strength levels and increased fatigue.

  1. Controls mood swings and reduces anxiety

This happens because amino acids are required for making neurotransmitters which control your mood. Proteins actually help your brain synthesize hormones like dopamine and serotonin that help make you feel more positive and calm.

  1. Helps you lose weight

    High- protein foods like beef and mutton can be a higher in calories than carbs but they cause an increase in satiety and keep you feeling full for a longer time. This stops you from reaching out for that packet of chips two hours after lunch.

    This is why protein is incredibly important when it comes to losing weight as it increases satiety and reduces appetite. It also boosts your metabolic rate which means your body burns calories more easily.

  2. Regularizes your menstrual cycle

    One of the most common reasons for irregular menstruation and infertility is PCOS. Obesity and insulin resistance can both increase the risk for PCOS and a low-protein, high-carb diet can increase your risk for getting PCOS by disrupting the delicate balance of female hormones like estrogen, progesterone and DHEA needed to sustain a regular cycle.

  3. Decreases risk of fractures

    Not just muscle, bones are also affected by low protein intake.  Not getting enough protein can weaken your bones and increase the risk of fractures. It can also cause falls, bone weakness and osteoporosis.

This happens because protein is needed for calcium absorption and bone metabolism.

Studies show that older women with the greatest bone losses are those with a low protein intake of about 16–50 grams per day.

Research has also proved that a diet high in amino acids can help in treating muscle loss due to ageing.

One study done in post-menopausal women found that a higher protein intake was associated with a lower risk of hip fractures.

The highest intake of protein was linked to a 69% reduced risk of fractures, and animal protein appeared to have the greatest benefits.

How do you know that you are deficient?

A protein deficiency makes women age 3-4 times faster than women who are not. It also causes these other symptoms:

  • A slow metabolism leading to weight gain and trouble losing weight

  • Low muscle mass

  • Low energy levels and dragging fatigue

  • Poor concentration

  • Mood swings

  • Muscle, bone and joint pains

  • Changes in blood sugar levels and predisposition to diabetes

  • Low immunity levels

How much protein does your body require?

The DRI or Dietary Reference Intake by USDA is 0.8 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight for both adult men and women. This amounts to:

  • 56 grams of protein per day for the average sedentary man

  • And 46 grams of protein per day for the average sedentary woman

What is important to note is that 0.8 grams is the minimum amount of protein required to prevent protein deficiency and muscle loss, and not for optimum health.

What then is the right amount of protein for women?  There is no “right” amount of protein for all women as an optimum protein intake depends on many factors, including your activity levels, age, muscle mass, and your current state of health.

As your activity increases – your protein requirement goes up. And this RDR also increases with age and your stress levels. If you are recuperating from an illness, for example, you need more protein-rich food too.

Protein requirement for teenage girls

If you are a teenager going through the teen growth spurt which results in the vertical growth of the long bones, your protein requirement doubles.

It also rises up if you are exercising and breaking down muscle.

You require about 2-3g per kg of ‘good’ protein daily as a teenager.

Protein needs of pregnant women

The protein RDA for pregnant and nursing women is 71 grams per day as compared to 46 grams per day in normal adult women.

This is equivalent to 0.5 grams of protein per pound each day for pregnant and nursing women.

Some pregnant and lactating women, especially those carrying or nursing multiple babies, may need additional protein.

Protein needs for post-menopausal women

Older women progressively lose muscle as they age and their bodies also are unable to build new muscle. The muscle loss, known as sarcopenia, ranges anywhere from a loss of  0.5to 2% of total muscle mass each year, and it starts around age 50.

What’s even more important to know is that muscle loss can begin even earlier in women who are inactive.

The Recommended Dietary Allowances for post-menopausal women is higher because they need more protein to maintain muscle mass and is pegged at 1- 1.2 gram of protein per kilogram of body weight.

Which protein source is best?

Animal sources of protein are the highest quality protein in the diet and generally provide the most leucine, the essential amino acid that is key to the synthesis of muscle in your body.

Whey protein has been found to be especially high in leucine.

If you are a vegetarian, do your best to eat more nuts, seeds, legumes, beans, whole grains and greens.

We would suggest that you don’t worry too much about RDAS and just start out by incorporating about 20 percent of calories in your meal from protein daily. So, if you eat 2000 calories a day, take care to eat at least 100 grams of protein and you should be good.

About the Author

Shikha Gandhi

Shikha Gandhi is a health journalist and a short film maker. She is also a certified Pranic healer and a lover of long walks.