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7 Risks and Symptoms of Protein Deficiency

protein deficiency

Protein is the key component of your muscles, hair, skin, enzymes, and hormones. It still plays an important part in body tissues. Protein deficiency leads to health problems, although inadequate consumption of protein can also be a concern, as it can cause gradual changes over time in your body. Here are 7 risks and symptoms of protein deficiency.

1. Loss of Lean Muscle Mass

Your muscles are the greatest protein reservoir in your body. The body takes the protein from skeletal muscles to maintain more important tissue and body functions. As a result, the lack of protein over time leads to muscle wasting. Even mild insufficiency of proteins can cause muscle wastage in the elderly.

One research in elderly men and women showed that muscle loss among those who ate the lowest protein quantities was higher. Other studies showing that an increased intake of protein can delay muscle degeneration that comes with old age (1, 2).

2. Risk of Bone Fractures

Muscles are not the only tissues that are affected by insufficient consumption of protein, the bones are also at risk. Failure to eat enough protein can weaken your bones and increase fracture risks (3).

One research found a higher intake of the protein associated with a lower risk of hip fractures. The highest consumption was associated with a reduced risk of 69 percent, and the highest benefits was the animal-protein source (4).

Another research study of recent hip fractures in postmenopausal women found that taking 20 grams of protein supplements per day for half a year reduced bone loss by 2.3% (5).

3. Stunted Growth

Protein not only helps build muscle and bone mass, but it is also important to the growth of the body. Deficiency or insufficiency is harmful to children whose growing bodies need a steady supply.

Stunting is the most common sign of malnutrition in childhood. Stunted growth affected about 161 million children only in 2013 (6).

Observational studies show a strong correlation between low intake of protein and impaired growth. Stunted growth is also one of the kwashiorkor’s principal characteristics in kids (7, 8).

4. Skin, Hair and Nail Problems

Protein deficiency also leaves its mark on the skin, hair, and nails. In infants, for example, kwashiorkor is characterized by flaky or split skin, redness, and depigmented skin patches (9).

Also common are hair thinning, fading hair color, hair loss, and brittle nails. However, unless you have a serious protein deficiency, such signs would occur (10).

5. Edema

Edema is a symptom of kwashiorkor, characterized by swollen and puffy skin. Scientists believe that it is caused by low levels of human serum albumin, the most abundant protein in the blood’s fluid portion, or blood plasma (11).

One of the major functions of albumin is to maintain oncotic pressure that brings fluid into the blood flow. Albumin thus avoids the accumulation of excessive amounts of fluid in tissues or other body rooms.

Severe protein deficiency leads to lower oncotic stress due to reduced levels of human serum albumin. As a result, water accumulates and induces inflammation of tissues.

Protein deficiency can cause a fluid buildup within the abdominal cavity for the same cause. A bloated belly is a kwashiorkor characteristic.

6. Greater Calorie Intake

If your consumption of protein is insufficient, your body will try to restore your protein status by increasing your appetite and motivating you to find something to eat (12).

But the desire to eat is not motivated by a protein deficiency, at least not for everyone. It can increase the appetite of people for savory foods that appear to be high in protein (13).

Low intake of protein can cause weight gain and obesity, a concept known as the theory of protein leverage. Not all studies support the hypothesis, but protein is satiating more than fat and carbs (14, 15).

This is part of why increased consumption of protein can reduce the overall intake of calories and encourage weight loss (16).

When you feel hungry all the time and have trouble monitoring your calorie intake, try to add some lean protein to each meal.

7. Fatty Liver

A fatty liver or fat accumulation in liver cells is another common symptom of kwashiorkor. The disorder left untreated can develop into fatty liver disease, causing inflammation, hepatic scarring, and possibly liver failure (17).

Among obese people, fatty liver is a common condition and those who consume a lot of alcohol. Yet studies suggest that impaired synthesis of fat-transporting proteins, known as lipoproteins, may lead to the condition (18).

Other Risks of Protein Deficiency

A typical sign of a deficiency in protein is a sense of weakness and excessive fatigue. As reported, feeling lethargic and exhausted all the time can result from low protein reserves in the body. We can also associate this exhaustion with an inability to stay warm and irritable.

There are many medical reasons for exhaustion. When you feel tired every day, making an appointment with your doctor is important.

Weak Libido

In fact, decreasing interest in sex may suggest a deeper nutritional problem. Protein deficiency can lead to a loss of sexual interest and libido. A lack of protein can also cause changes in the menstrual cycle and even temporary fertility loss in women. It is important for pregnant women to get enough protein.

Recurring Infections

Protein deficiency can also impair the immune system. Impaired immune function can increase infection risk or severity, a common symptom of serious protein deficiency.

For example, one research in mice found that a more serious influenza infection followed a diet comprising only 2 percent protein, compared to an 18 percent protein diet.

A low intake of protein can impair immune function. A small study in older women found that their immune response was reduced after a low-protein diet for nine weeks.

Protein Deficiency

Protein deficiency occurs when your diet can not meet the requirements of your body. An approximate one billion people are suffering from inadequate consumption of protein.

In Central Africa and South Asia, where up to 30% of children get too little protein from their diet, the problem is severe.

Many populations are also at risk in developed countries. It includes people with an imbalanced diet and older people.

Low consumption of protein can cause long-term changes in body structure, such as muscle wasting. It occurs most often in children in developing countries with widespread malnutrition and imbalanced diets.

Deficiency in protein can affect every aspect of body function. As a result, most symptoms are associated with it.

The Bottom Line

Most of the muscles, skin, hair, bones, and blood are protein. Protein deficiency, therefore, has a wide range of symptoms. Serious protein deficiency in children can cause swelling, fatty liver, skin degeneration, increase infection severity, and stunt growth.

Frequently Asked Question

How much protein do I need?


Not everyone has the same need for protein. This depends on many factors, including the weight of the body, muscle mass, physical activity, and age.

The most important determinant of protein requirements is body weight. As a result, they usually present instructions for each pound or a kilogram of body weight as grams.

The recommended daily allowance for each pound of body weight (0.8 grams per kg) is 0.4 grams of protein. Scientists estimate that for most people, this should be enough.

For a person weighing 165 pounds (75 kg), it amounts to 66 grams of protein per day. Researchers, however, does not agree on how much is enough.

The average recommendation for athletes from the International Sports Nutrition Society is 0.9 grams of protein per pound of body weight (2 grams per kg) (38).

Even older adults seem to have higher protein needs, just like athletes.

What kinds of foods are high in protein?


High-protein foods include meats, poultry, and fish, and dairy products, tofu, grains, other vegetables and fruits, eggs, legumes, nuts, and seeds.

Eating a variety of protein foods will increase the consumption of nutrients. Seafood can be nutritious. Some healthy sources of protein are lean and low-fat poultry and food.

For vegetarians, there are choices such as peas, beans, nuts, grains, and refined soy products.

Do women need more protein than men?


Men need more protein than women in their diet. Men need about 56 grams of protein while women need about 46 grams of protein a day. Protein requirements depend on the level of physical activity, gender, and age.

Do athletes need much more protein than other people?


Athletes just need a little more protein than non-athletes. The higher caloric intake needed for the energy needs of athletic activity may fulfill these protein needs.

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Naeem Durrani BSc
Naeem Durrani is a freelance journalist who specializes in health and wellness innovation. His interests include medical research, nutrition, and the scientific evidence around effective wellness practices that empower people to positively transform their lives.
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