Winter: when you eat the least protein, but your body needs it the most

Adding more protein to your plate this season could mean a trimmer holiday waistline, fewer cavities, fewer colds, and more energy. Not to mention healthy, shiny hair.

Jeff Wasserman | Stocksy United

Mac and cheese? Yes, please! Mashed potatoes? Bring them on! Biscuits? Of course! Pumpkin pie? I always have room for pie!

Sound familiar? It’s no secret that once Thanksgiving hits, you and your family start piling your plates high with carbs. They’re comforting and oh-so delicious, especially after a long, cold day. Casseroles and other crock-pot indulgences may seem perfect for one of our most instinctual activities of the season: hibernation. But those holiday goodies often come at a price. When you eat too many carbohydrate-rich foods it can push much-needed proteins right off your plate.

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“In the winter we often crave comfort foods that are high in carbohydrates,” says Danielle Pashko, a wellness expert in New York City. And she points out that we often overeat those high carbohydrate rich meals this time of year because we’re not getting enough protein, which can help satiate your stomach, and quiet its plea for seconds.

Matt Plowman of Cardiff Sports Nutrition in Cardiff, Wales agrees that getting enough protein is particularly key for staving off unhealthy cravings. “Protein keeps us fuller for longer … and evens out blood sugar highs and lows,” he explains. “Therefore if you aren’t getting enough then you may find that food cravings are more significant—a consequence of a high-carb/low sugar diet. You’ll inevitably end up reaching for the sweet stuff for a quick fix.”

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But that’s not all. The downside to not getting enough protein goes beyond gaining a few extra pounds: “You may also find that your immune system is weaker, as protein is needed to build the compounds in our system,” Plowman says. And, without energy-boosting proteins you’ll probably feel more lethargic than usual, too.

In short, adding more protein to your plate this season could mean a trimmer holiday waistline, fewer cavities, a stronger immune system, and more energy. That’s a lot of wins.

Looking for the signs of protein deficiency

OK, that all does sound great. But how do you know when you’re not getting enough protein? Well, your body will give you distinct signs. So, as the holiday season progresses, be mindful, and look for these hints:

1. Low energy and low immunity: Without the correct amount of protein, it makes “catching colds or infections easier,” says Plowman. So sicknesses are signs you may need to up your protein intake. And even if you don’t have the sniffles, “you’d probably have low energy levels” says Pollyanna Hale, founder of the Fit Mum Formula.

2. Dry skin and dull hair: “Dry skin and brittle hair and nails are also signs. However, catching a cold and dealing with lackluster hair may be the least of your worries,” says Hale. (Even though, yes, we want that pretty, shiny hair.) Plowman agrees: “Our skin is one of our biggest organs, so without enough protein, you may also notice that your skin isn’t as strong.”

3. Weak muscles and slow healing: Hale adds that, “protein is needed for muscle growth, repair and regeneration, so not enough protein will leave you weak and more susceptible to muscle injuries, which will take longer to heal.” Bruising more frequently? That could be a sign you’re very low on protein.

4. General low spirits: “Some of the [other] symptoms of not having enough protein and fat in your diet in winter are low energy, low tolerance for cold, decrease in moods, unstable moods and even SAD [seasonal affective disorder],” explains Lucy Chen, a holistic health coach in New York City.

But don’t worry, you can prevent or reverse these issues with just a few simple diet adjustments.

Eat your veggies

Believe it or not, it’s not just meats and nuts that contain protein. Many vegetables do, too—and in surprisingly high amounts: “Great sources of proteins come from all plant foods,” says Cassie Karopkin, a licensed colon therapist in New York City. “20 to 40 percent of calories from beans, broccoli, and spinach, are protein. So load up!”

Chen also suggests getting your fill of “hearty greens” (lettuces like kale, collards and chard), as well as beans, nuts, and high protein grains (things like quinoa, spelt, kamut, teff, amaranth and sorghum.)

Go for higher-fat proteins

OK, now it’s time to talk meat. Specifically meats with higher fat content. “Animal proteins are obvious, but for winter focus on animal protein with a higher fat content such as salmon, mackerel, and other cold water fish,” says Chen. “Pork, beef and chicken with the skin on for the added fat content are also great choices.”

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With that in mind, it’s hardly surprising that people who live in cold climates like the Inuits and the Scandinavians eat so much fatty fish then. Follow their lead when the winter chill hits!

Don’t fall for protein gimmicks

How much do protein-rich foods actually benefit you? It depends on who you ask, but diet and wellness experts seem to agree that sometimes you get fooled into the wrong foods:

“I’m not opposed to eating double protein breads, high protein cereals, or protein cookies etc,” says Pashko. “But it’s best to turn to foods that are naturally high in protein which are better in quality as opposed to such as those that are fortified.”

For naturally protein-rich foods, she recommends raw nuts, nut butters, Greek yogurt, low-fat cheeses, hardboiled eggs, and turkey slices. Best yet? “These are all items that are accessible and easy to find.”

Adult women need around 46 grams of protein a day, while men need 56 grams per day.”

But Karopkin cautions even more strongly against cookies and cereals that tout high protein headlines: “Protein fortified bread, for example, won’t do you any favors,” she says. “Shoot for straight forward plants to provide you with a balance and abundance of protein and other nutrients needed to properly nourish you.”

Karopkin adds that this time of year, it’s especially important to strive for balanced meals before and after the big events like Christmas, because our holiday favorites are so imbalanced.

“Especially around the holiday season, go for a balanced meal and try not to overdo it,” she says. “Aim to focus on plants and whole foods and you won’t find yourself weighed down, sluggish, or sick. Your body will thank you for it!”

But don’t overdo your protein intake, either

Sure, you might have got a little crazy with the carbs around the holidays, but don’t worry too much about you or your kiddos. Karopkin swears plummeting to a true protein deficiency would take extreme action (or inaction, as the case may be.)

“Kwashiorkor, also known as protein deficiency, is much harder to get than you’d think, given that the average American consumes three times more protein than recommended.” Kwashiorkor is the kind of malnutrition you typically see in developing countries, not middle-class America.

If you and your bunch try to eat a well-balanced diet most of the time, you should be fine. Plowman states that adult women need around 46 grams of protein a day, while men need 56 grams per day. Babies should consume 10 grams a day. Children, depending on their age, size, and period of development need protein in the five-grams-a-day range, but can have upwards of 19 to 34 grams per day.

So those gingerbread cookies you’re dying to have? Treat yourself, but don’t forget to put a little of that kale on your plate during the salad course.

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