Why Your Body Might Be Starving For Protein

Our human brains LOVE to jump to conclusions. It just seems so natural that if we put food into our mouths and chew it that that food will be “digested.” It will feed us the micro and macro nutrients we need… right?

Not exactly.

Meet Annie, a friend of mine. We were talking recently and she told me that a few years ago she was struggling with low energy and brain fog. As a professional and active woman, this was really causing her a lot of unhappiness.

And the doctors she was seeing at the time offered zero help.

She was deep in the research trying to get herself better, when she realized she might have a protein problem — despite eating a diet full of healthy meats and vegetables.

She wondered, “How could that be possible?”

Soon, she discovered something surprising… something that didn’t make logical sense, but she was at her wits end and ready to try anything.

She read about Hypochlorhydria or low stomach acid (I actually wrote about it here)… and it was then that she realized it was possible she might not be digesting the meat she was eating.

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She said she immediately started supplementing with Betaine HCL… and that was the day everything changed.

She told me she soon had energy that had been missing for years. It was like night and day.

Annie, who’s name I’ve changed, isn’t alone. Her story is one that I’ve heard over and over.

Even If You Eat Meat, Your Body Could Be Starving for Protein

I believe it’s a tragedy that you may be working so hard talking to farmers, going store to store, trying to find the most sustainable and humanely raised meat…

Spending double or triple the cost of the factory-farmed junk meat, only to to pass it through into the toilet and not reaping the rewards of all that time, energy and money.

But it’s happening. And it’s far more common than you may think. Heck, it happened to me for many months.

Here’s some signs and symptoms that despite your diet, you might have a protein absorption problem:

  • Low energy
  • Brain imbalances
  • Weight loss
  • Weight gain
  • Muscle weakness and wasting
  • Swelling due to water retention (edema)
  • Low blood pressure
  • Low heart rate
  • Blood sugar imbalances
  • Immune system dysregulation
  • Liver problems
  • Anemia
  • Bone health disorders

Protein is very important for a healthy, happy mind and body.

Proteins are bigger molecules that are broken down into amino acids.

Neurotransmitters, muscle tissues, bones, and insulin all require amino acids… they play a role in every cell in your body actually.

It’s no wonder then, if you are lacking in these amino acids your health is going to be suffering.

Protein Malnutrition Is a Serious Condition (and Might Be Affecting You Right Now)

Dr. Latham, director of the Program in International Nutrition at Cornell University claims that malnutrition is a frequent cause of death and disease in third world countries. According to this paper, Protein-energy malnutrition (PEM) affects 500 million people and kills 10 million annually.

With the understanding that we’ll never know the exact numbers, I think 10 million is likely the high limit and the true number is below that. Regardless, we are talking about millions of people.

And that’s a serious issue, one those of us lucky enough to live in developed nations are likely only exposed to when seeing sad pictures of children looking like this…


This is protein malnutrition at it’s worst.

However, that doesn’t mean we are free and clear, as even a small amount of protein malnutrition is hypothesised to be a really big problem.

Bob Lanier, a former biology professor at Jesuit College Preparatory School of Dallas, claims that in developed countries protein deficiency is more common today than statistics might reveal. Lanier is quoted around the internet as providing a variety of data and connects widespread protein deficiency among low-income minority families to explain poor academic performance. I couldn’t actually find it.

This study does partially support Bob’s idea showing lower protein intake in certain minority groups.

Here’s a study showing that protein and micronutrient enhanced formulas fed to preterm babies can drastically alter intelligence. Here’s a rat study talking about neuron loss due to a low-protein diet. In general, there’s a lack of research looking into this…

But what I want to make clear is that clinical and anecdotal stories of people in western countries who were struggling with issues mentioned above, brain fog, energy, blood sugar and weight issues are everywhere. Annie is just one of these. They were eating diets containing plenty of meat and when they helped their body digest protein better — their issues were either greatly improved or eliminated.

How Meat and Protein Gets Digested and Absorbed

When you take a bite of meat (filled with protein) there’s a complex communication that the body begins having between your mouth and your stomach. There are all kinds of unconscious processes that kick into high gear creating gastrin juice (basically stomach acid soup) for you to actually absorb the amino acids inside this meat and other micronutrients like iron, zinc and B12.

The main component of this gastric juice is hydrochloric acid (HCL). You need the right amount of HCL in your stomach to denature the proteins and activate the enzyme pepsin. Once the HCL unfolds the complex protein structure, you need enough pepsin to cleave them apart so that you can absorb them in your small intestine.

The pH of the stomach should be very acidic, in the range of 1.5-3.5. Pepsin functions best around a pH of 2. If the pH is too high, then Pepsin may not even be activated to break down the proteins.

There are other parts of stomach acid, like intrinsic factor. If the meat isn’t broken down and if there’s not enough intrinsic factor released, you will NOT be able to absorb vitamin B12.

In other words, if your stomach fails to get this right then that grass-fed steak you’re eating is mostly wasted on bacteria and sewer water. And you may end up starting to have protein malnutrition.

3 Steps to Make Sure You’re Digesting Protein

As you can see, there are two really important things you want enough of: HCL and Pepsin. If you have any of the symptoms mentioned above or if you’re suffering form any signs of low stomach acid, then you’re a great candidate to test to see if your issues are protein malnutrition related.

Step 1:  Ensure adequate HCL in stomach

The best way is to take a Heidelberg test, but if you’d rather not wait around you can try 2 quick at home tests that will give you a clue if you need more. The first is trying some ACV before meals. If this helps, that’s a great sign you need more acid. Or what most people do is try adding in more acid in the form of Betaine HCL and see how their body reacts.

Step 2: Make sure you have enough enzymes

Remember, pepsin is the most important protein enzyme, however there are others. One idea to test along with ensuring proper HCL levels is adding more pepsin and other protein enzymes into your diet.  The best way to do this is with Betaine HCL with pepsin and a well-rounded pancreatic enzyme like Thorne’s Dipan 9 that includes a large dose of peptidase enzymes.

You should know in a week or two if it’s helping. Don’t be afraid to try 2, 3, even 4 enzyme pills per meal.

Step 3: Figure out why this is happening and fix it!

The two steps above can change your life if you need them, but you’ll be stuck taking those pills every day of your life unless you get down to the root issues of why your stomach acid isn’t working properly.

This is something I’ve researched heavily and worked hard on in my own life. In fact, I just had a 90-minute conversation with Dr. Steven Sandberg-Lewis (a Gastroenterology expert) that blew my mind all about stomach acid, heartburn and digestion.

I can’t wait to share everything I’ve learned – old and new.

You can find out more about stomach acid, GERD and heartburn here

I’m simplifying all my years of research, experimentation, and talks with mentors like Dr. SS-L and putting it into actionable steps for you. This information is not available anywhere online and most of it I’ve never written about. Why? Because a short article can’t and won’t do it justice.

We need to go deeper than that (but not textbook deep).

I can tell you this, though…  after you listen to the call, you’ll likely know so much more than your doctors about stomach acid, GERD, Gastroparesis and Hiatal hernias that they might be offended in your next appointment.

Sign up here: http://heartburnhelp.scdlifestyle.com/

In the meantime, tell me in the comments below what happens when you try upgrading your stomach acid.


Steven Wright

About Steven Wright

Steve Wright is a health engineer and author. In 2009, he reached a breaking point when IBS took over his life and the doctors didn't know how to help. Since then, he has transformed his health and started HealthyGut.com to help others naturally heal stomach problems. You can check out his story here and find him on Google+, Facebook or Twitter.

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55 thoughts on “Why Your Body Might Be Starving For Protein

  1. Avatar

    This is really interesting because I have been feeling absolutely exhausted for a year or so, in addition to poor digestion. HCL Betaine, as far as I can tell, is starting to improve my digestion even more but the biggest thing I’ve noticed is ENERGY. A 28 year old shouldn’t be so exhausted especially when eating a high quality low carb high fat paleo diet. The other thing I noticed in supplementing with HCL Betaine is I’m no longer always starving. It seems no matter what I ate, how much protein or fat, I was always hungry. It makes sense now that my body is actually digesting the protein I’m eating. Makes me sad for all the $$$ I’ve spent on meat that has been for nothing!

  2. Avatar

    Hey there,
    I have suffered a great deal of health problems the last 2 years with no relief. I have a hx of severe laxative abuse and anorexia.
    Upon recovering two years ago, things have gotten worse, not better.
    I have high cortisol, hypothyroid, low progesterone, and the worst edema you can ever imagine every SINGLE day for 2 years.
    I eat dairy/soy/gluten/egg/peanut free, as well as keep my diet antiinflammatory, i take quality probiotics/enzymes/bcomplex/adaptogenic herbs/extra strength tumeric/omega3 and a LOT of glutamine as well as Natural desiccated thyroid etc etc. i have been tested negative for SIBO, possible candida and definetly leaky gut which i have been working at fixing for evvvvver!
    I am wondering, is it possible that I has ruined my gut lining with the laxative abuse and maybe am not digesting proteins even tho I eat QUALITY meat and protein sources?
    I am at a loss, have the worst PMS/bloating/swelling and have not been able to lose a single lb in the last 2 years (in fact, ive gained). I am BEYOND miserable. I believe in the bodies ability to heal, but something is wrong with me.
    I have tried HCL before, didnt feel ANY different (was taking 7-8 metagenics brand at each meal).
    do you have ANY POSSIBLE THOUGHTS!?????? i just need some possible ideas to why I may be struggling so bad. I know my history is grim, and that i wish i never would have treated my body so poor, but I want to LIVE LIFE NOW! that isn’t me, and I can’t get past it. I feel worse than the addiction itself.
    If there are any ideas as to why I have these problems with NO relief with ANY supplement/protocol, i would forever be indebted to you.
    thank you

  3. Avatar

    Hi Mariel,

    Will your body actually start absorbing the nutrients from the protein after taking the betaine HCL or will it just help digest the food/protein and pass through your system?

  4. Avatar

    Is this true?

    I read that if you take pancreatin supplement for longer than 2 months, your pancreas will no longer produce pancreatin and you will need to take pancreatin for the rest of your life!!!!

  5. Avatar

    I’ve been having acid reflux for 6 months now, and I really think it’s due to low stomach acid. I took Prilosec, Nexium and Prevacid with only a little relief. The ACV remedy helps temporarily. My total protein test came back normal(6.9), but I have many of the symptoms associated with protein deficiency(fatigue, low energy, weight loss, muscle weakness, low blood pressure). I’m really concerned about my weight loss. I’ve so far lost 13 lbs within the past 5 months, and my appetite has been normal. Could this be due to low stomach acid? All of my labs are normal, and my doctor doesn’t know what else to do for me.

  6. Avatar

    Hi! I’ve been taking my HCL supplement for a few weeks now and the results have been amazing. I no longer feel discomfort after meals and my post-meal social anxiety is going away! I am also experiencing more energy after protein-heavy meals. I am happy and grateful to have found out about the supplement through your website 🙂 So thank you, thank you!

    I did have a question. Basically since my teen years I *think* I’ve been suffering from low stomach acid. If that is indeed the case, I suspect that the ailment has prevented me from properly absorbing nutrition, and most importantly protein, since my teen years. As a 27 year-old now, I am quite thin and could be considered underweight, yet I am flabby (“skinny fat”), despite knowing that I am more physically active than the average person. (By the way, I don’t really have long-lasting stamina or energy when it comes to physical activity).

    So my question is, since the HCL has been working wonders for me, and if my suspicions about suffering from low stomach acid since I was a teen are correct, could the HCL supplement actually help me to increase protein absorption to the point that I will notice a significant increase in muscle mass and stamina? If so, what do you think the timeframe is to see a significant change?

    • Avatar

      Hi Whitney – we’re so happy to hear how this info has supported you!! 🙂

      If you weren’t able to digest protein fully before and now you are, you’ll likely see some big changes in your hair, nails, skin – and even your muscle tone! However, there is no way to know how dramatic these changes will be or how long it will take you to notice them.

      Since the HCL is helping you feel better and with your digestion, we urge you to continue it and let other changes happen as they wilL!

      I’d recommend checking this out too: https://healthygut.com/2011/09/gain-weight-and-heal-faster-on-scd/

  7. Avatar

    Need words of wisdom. I am a 47 yr. old female. For a number of years now, I have been dealing with digestive issues. In Aug 2015 my GI doctor told me I had Celiac via an upper GI and told me to be on a gluten free diet. I have been eating GF since but noticed that I still had a lot of gas, unable to properly digest food and did not seem to be putting on any weight (matter of fact, I even lost some weight) I am 5’6″ and currently weigh 110 lbs (so I really could use some extra pounds). After doing a lot of reading online, I tried the “spit in water” test and it appeared I had Candida. In April 2016, I decided to see a natural/holistac doctor in San Francisco. I told him my symptoms and told him about the water test and he agreed 100% that I have Candida. Also have a very low body temp (95.7 before getting out of bed) and he also seemed to think I have some thyroid issues too. He put me on a VERY strict diet (no carbs, pretty much meat and fresh veggies and LOTS of water and ginger tea in the morning) he also has me taking a number of anti-fungals (potassium-magnesium, mineral water, damp water, complete probiotic, iodine balance, digestive enzymes, vitamin D, olive leaf extract, multi vitamin) also doing a colon cleanse at the facility. Two weeks ago they performed the implementation of “good” bacteria in my system via the colonics and I thought I was getting better, but now I am not so sure. The gas/burping is better than it was in Aug. 2015, but is still there right after I eat. Also, can NOT seem to put on weight. I also have very little muscle strength and no muscle tone. I really feel like I am eating but my body is not absorbing anything. Also they have never ran any type of lab work (which I find kind of strange). If you can offer me any words of wisdom that would be great. Thank you.

  8. Avatar
    Chelse Williams says:

    Please, I need help. I am crying as I write this. For the past week and a half, my condition has worsened. I am a 22 year old HIGHLY productive female college student. I began to suddenly experience loss of balance and perceived dizziness. I began to have feelings of being off quickly. The symptoms seem to occur about an hour or two after eating. Now, I am sliding into debilitatin brain fog. It feels like I’m awake but my brain is asleep. My head always hurts. When the brain fog comes, I am confused and I simply cannot think. I will go to the store, be so disoriented, that I leave crying and spend the rest of the day in bed, from feeling awful. My brain is either being attacked or starved. I keep telling my mother, that reven though I look fine on the inside, I am extremely ill internally. My body is crying for help and I don’t know why. Besides typical headache and dizziness (I’d live the rest of my life like this if it meant no brain fog), my cognitive function is shot. I am so scared. Has anyone experienced this? I am beginning to wonder if something is happening concerning protein. I seem to react best to it, but everyday is so different. I eat, feel bad, eat again, feel bad. Please, please help.

    • Avatar

      Hi Chelse – I’m so sorry to hear what you’re going through.

      First, if you haven’t yet, it sounds like you need to go to your doctor or your school’s health center ASAP. They can help you out and potentially test your blood sugar levels.

      I hope you’re feeling better soon!!

  9. Avatar

    Hi, I’m confused about taking both betaine HCL with pepsin and Dipan 9. Do I need to worry that the HCL is canceling out the pancreatic enzymes before they can work? I don’t think Dipan 9 is enteric coated. Thanks!

  10. Avatar


    Based on testing, I’m low in protein and not digesting fat. So I’m taking Betaine HCL with pepsin and Dipan-9 to help my pancreas. But from what I understand stomach acid keeps the pancreatic supplement from working. Is that your experience with folks taking both HCL with pepsin plus pancreatic enzymes? I have even seen the recommendation to take an antacid with pancreatin which I’m not going to do. Thanks.

  11. Avatar

    We have done the baking soda test and no burps happened. I called the doctor to report this and now they want to schedule him for the Bravo test. Not the Heidelberg test! He is 19 years old. This has been going on for 4 years but is getting worse. Even chicken will make him sick. I was hoping a doctor would diagnose him they can monitor him. He is in college and I feel as we have to get to the bottom of it this summer. Does the Heidelberg test have to be ordered by a doctor? I am at my wits end!

  12. Avatar

    Why is it so hard to get doctors to diagnose low stomach acid? My son gets sick when eating meat. We are on our 4th doctor. 2nd GI doctor. From what I read he is a textbook case! We did the swallowing test last week. It was normal. Next is the scope. I called and begged yesterday to check his stomach acid levels. Told them about doing the baking soda test and the no burps. So they agreed to do the ph test. The nurse said she had never booked one and would find out who does them! Why is this so overlooked?

  13. Avatar

    Hi, I had my gall bladder removed about 12 years ago (no stones, but poor functioning). My digestive system never seemed the same afterwards. Several years after the surgery, I started experiencing problems – excessive gas, constant burping after meals, fullness, and diarrhea. For the past 7-8 years, I typically have loose stools 4-5 days a week, 3-4x a day. My hair started excessive shedding for the past 7 years. It starts to grow back, but then I’ll go through another massive shedding cycle. There are probably 2-3 months out of the year that my hair is not massively shedding. I’ve lost well over 50% of my hair density. The frustrating part is that all of my labs are coming back normal. Thyroid tests & antibodies are normal, Protein levels normal. I just recently saw a new holistic integrative medicine dr, and he did a Candida test, as well as b12, vitamin D, and ferritin. All normal. I really thought I had a malabsorption problem and these would for sure come back low. I found your website and decided to do the baking soda test out of curiosity. I never burped at all after taking it. I then decided to start trying some ACV (Bragg’s) before meals to see if it helped, and it does seem to. It’s only been a few days, but my digestion seems better and stools are more normal than they have been in a long time. My question is – can I still have low stomach acid, but normal lab values? Could this still be the cause of my hair shedding? I would assume if I was not absorbing protein & vitamins normally, it would have shown up in my labs. I’m just desperate for answers at this point, and am hoping this might be it. Thank you for any insight.

  14. Avatar

    My main problem is terrible bloating for the past several years, which seems to happen after every meal, and recently I have started belching a bit after meals as well. I feel strongly that the food is not digesting. For years I have difficulty passing stool after eating protein. I suspect i don’t digest protein well, and intend to start with betaine hcl. But i am confused: I just looked at the intro SCD diet and it is so much protein! What is the solution for someone who does not digest protein well?

  15. Avatar

    Hi Steve, Thank you so much for the info. My question is: Is it better to take the Betaine 15 min. before the meal or should i take it with the meal? Thank you in advance. naama

  16. Avatar
    Stephanie Christensen says:

    I have just stumbled upon your website and all the information you have! I was diagnosed with celiac disease almost 4 years ago now. I immediately got better with the gluten free diet, but recently in the last year or two I have started to experience symptoms again. I am researching your information to see if the SCD could help me! My bloodwork shows very low protein. My doctor just told me to eat more meat, but honestly I feel like I eat meat everyday, plus eggs for breakfast. Do you think my problem is that I am not absorbing the protein? He never gave an explanation as to why I have low protein in my blood, just told me to eat more protein. I don’t have stomach problems after I eat meat. I guess my question is, could low protein in a person’s blood indicate a problem digesting protein? Thanks for your help!

  17. Avatar

    My husband ‘s complaining if being exhausted during the day and can’t do two things at once or he loses focus. His bone health isn’t that great as well. He drinks a lot of alkaline water from a system we have in our home. We eat organic grass-fed beef, pastured chicken and eggs, and wild caught fish for our non-vegetable options of protein. Could the alkaline water have an effect on this?
    Do you mix anything with the ACV? How much of it and how long before a meal should one drink it?

  18. Avatar

    Thanks for your research and writing on how important it is to get your stomach acid right! Only after a recently being reminded by you in a previous article to increase my HCL and enzymes did my digestion begin to improve. I am so thankful for all your work.

  19. Avatar

    Hi Steve, thanks for an interesting post. What do you think about this that I read about the timing of HCl pills in relation to a meal? :

    “Digestive enzymes from the mouth only work on carbs while the mixture is alkaline. Therefore, if HCl supplements are taken too early it stops carb digestion in the stomach too soon. HCl also neutralizes any digestive enzyme supplements, so taking them is a waste. That is why it is important to take HCl supplements 30-45 minutes after eating a meal.”

    Thanks, Kat

    • Avatar

      Hi kat, thanks for reaching out. It is very important to be careful where you get your information, as there is a ton of opinions out there, but very few are from pure reviewed journal sources. Jordan and Steve base all their content on the highest quality research, and this holds true for that article as well.

  20. Avatar
    Mary Morgan says:

    I take ACV before each meal (1tsp in 4 oz of filtered water) and i am now up to 15 HCL-Pepsin (thorne brand) capusles per meal. I still cannot feel the burn so i will continue increasing util i do. I am on the FODMAP diet (i have been diagnosed with SIBO) and i am still burping after every meal and there is undigested food in my stool. What is the limit of the HCL that i can take?
    thanks mary

    • Avatar

      Hi Mary-
      It’s very common for people to stop short of their needed Betaine HCL dosage. In fact, in the beginning I was nervous about taking 6 pills at a meal. But trust me. there is nothing to worry about. Dr. Wright reports that the common Betaine HCL dosage range in his clinical practice is 3,250-4,550mg per meal. That means there are also plenty of people who need above 5,000mg for an effective dosage.

      Remember a normal functioning stomach is capable of producing and handling extreme acid ranges. If your dosage starts getting extremely high without any GI distress (step #3), you must use your GI symptoms as a guide instead. These include burping, bloating, farting, and stool consistency. Keep everything else the same in your diet as you wait for these indicators to change for the better. Just because you can take 20 pills, doesn’t mean you should. It could be that at 11 pills all of your problems disappear. For this group of people try to find the minimum dose needed to help your GI symptoms and for Pete’s sake go get more testing to figure out what is going on!”

      You can view the full article here: https://healthygut.com/2012/03/how-to-supplement-with-betaine-hcl-for-low-stomach-acid/

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