Health

What are the typical signs of protein deficiency?

Few nutrients are as vital as protein. Protein is essentially the building block of our muscles, skin, hormones and enzymes, and it has an important role to play in all body tissues. A lot of foods have some amount of protein. Therefore, true protein deficiency is a rare occurrence in developed nations. However, some people may still be exposed to the risk.

Protein deficiency causes several health issues, while low intake of protein may also be an issue, as it can lead to slight changes in the body in due course. There are 8 most common symptoms due to low protein intake or deficiency.

What Is Protein Deficiency?

Protein deficiency occurs when the diet alone is unable to meet the body’s requirements. Around 1 billion people around the world suffer from insufficient protein intake.

The problem is particularly serious in South Asia and Central Africa, where around 30% of children get very little protein in their food. Some people in the developed countries are also prone to the risk, which includes vegetarians and vegans who eat an imbalanced diet, as well as hospitalized patients and institutionalized older people.

The most serious type of protein deficiency is called kwashiorkor, which often occurs in children in developing countries where imbalanced diets and famine are frequent. Protein deficiency affects almost all facets and functions of the body. Consequently, it is linked to many symptoms.

Some of these symptoms may occur even when protein deficiency is insignificant. They are mentioned below, along with the common symptoms of kwashiorkor.

Edema

Edema, which is described by puffy and swollen skin, is a typical symptom of kwashiorkor. Scientists believe it results from low quantities of albumin, which is the most plentiful protein found in the blood plasma.

One of albumin’s main features is maintaining oncotic pressure, which is a force that draws fluid into the blood flow. That way, albumin stops too much of fluid from amassing in tissues or other body parts.

Due to the reduced levels of albumin, serious protein shortage results in lower oncotic pressure, further leading to fluid accumulation in tissues, and causing inflammation. Protein deficiency may also lead to buildup of fluid within the abdominal cavity. A swollen belly is a characteristic feature of kwashiorkor.

Fatty Liver

Another familiar symptom of kwashiorkor is the accumulation of fat in liver cells. And the condition may develop into fatty liver disease if left untreated, causing liver scarring, inflammation and even liver failure.

Fatty liver commonly occurs in overweight people, and those who consume high amount of alcohol. Its occurrence in cases of protein deficiency is still unclear, but studies have suggested that improper synthesis of fat carrying proteins, called lipoproteins, may further add to the condition.

Skin, Hair and Nail Problems

Sometimes protein deficiency may leave its mark on the skin, hair and nails that are mainly composed of protein. For example, kwashiorkor in children is noticed by splitting or flaky skin, reddishness and areas of de-pigmented skin.

Thinning hair, hair loss (alopecia), discolored hair and frail nails are also common signs. However, they most likely occur in cases of severe protein deficiency.

Loss of Muscle Mass

Muscles are the largest reservoir of protein. When protein is low, the body tends to obtain protein from the muscles to sustain vital tissues and body functions. Ultimately, the lack of protein causes the muscle to deteriorate.

Even modest protein deficiency can cause muscle deterioration, particularly in elderly people. A research conducted in elderly people showed that muscle loss was higher among those consuming the least amount of protein.

Greater Risk of Bone Fractures

Just like muscles, the bones are also prone to the risk. Not taking adequate protein may weaken the bones and raise the risk of fractures.

A study conducted in post-menopausal women found that high protein intake was linked to low risk of hip fractures. Another study in postmenopausal women with current hip fractures revealed that consuming 20 grams of protein daily for 6 months slowed down bone deterioration by 2.3%.

Stunted Growth in Children

Just as protein helps to maintain bones and muscle mass, it’s also vital for body growth. Thus, insufficiency is particularly harmful for children as their growing bodies need a stable supply. In fact, stunting is a very common symptom of malnutrition in children.

In 2012, around 161 million children experienced stunted growth. Research and studies reveal a strong link between low protein intake and stunted growth, which is also one of the major features of kwashiorkor in children.

  1. Increased Severity of Infections

A protein insufficiency can also affect the immune system. Impaired immune system may raise the potential or severity of infections, which is also a typical symptom of serious protein deficiency.

For example, a study in rodents showed that on a diet providing 2% protein were prone to a more serious influenza infection, in contrast with a diet containing 18% protein.

Even slightly low intake of protein may weaken immune system. A research conducted in older women showed that on a low-protein diet for 9 weeks considerably diminished their immune response.

Large Appetite and Calorie Intake

Although smaller appetite is one of the causes of true protein deficiency, larger appetite seems to cause milder types of deficiency. When your protein intake is insufficient, the body endeavors to reinstate the protein status by boosting the appetite and encouraging looking for something to eat.

But a protein deficiency doesn’t pointlessly develop the urge to eat for everyone. It may selectively boost the appetite for certain foods that tend to be high in protein. While this may be great in times of food scarcity, the issue is that access to savory and high-calorie foods is very much accessible.

Many of these convenience foods include some amount of protein, but it is often noticeably low in comparison to the total calories they carry. Consequently, low protein intake may cause weight gain and obesity, also called the protein control hypothesis.

How Much Protein Do You Need?

Everyone has different protein requirement. It depends on factors such as body weight, muscle mass, age and physical activity. Body weight is perhaps the most crucial detriment of protein necessities. Hence, recommendations are usually offered in grams for every kilogram or pound of body weight.

The recommended daily allowance (RDA) of protein is 0.4 grams for 1 pound of body weight (or 0.8 grams per kilogram). Scientists estimate it should be adequate for most people.

However, scientists do not necessarily agree how much should be considered enough. The International Sports Nutrition Society’s RDA is 0.9 grams of protein for a single pound of body weight (2 grams per kilogram) for athletes. Apparently, older adults also seem to have higher requirements of protein.

Simply put, the daily protein requirement for older or physically active people is possibly higher than the standard RDA of 0.4 grams per 1 pound of body weight (0.8 grams for each kilogram). The sources rich in protein include fish, eggs, meat, legumes and dairy products.

The Bottom Line

Protein is present everywhere in a healthy body. The muscles, skin, bones, hair and blood are largely composed of protein. For that reason, protein deficit has a large number of symptoms. Severe protein deficiency can cause inflammation, skin degeneration, fatty liver, increased severity of infections and stunted growth in children.

While serious protein deficiency may be rare in developed countries, low intake may cause muscle deterioration and bone fractures. There is some evidence that consuming very little protein may boost appetite and cause overeating and gaining weight. For best health, ensure including high-protein foods in every meal.

Tom Brendon

Tom Brendon has completed his nutrition undergrad in the UK and received his Master's degree from Canada in health education and specializes in human health and pediatrics. He began his career as a writer for Nutritionline in 2014 and Authority Health in 2016. He has considerable research experience and currently writes nutrition and health articles for general readership. He enjoys outdoor activities, snowboarding and spending quality time with family and friends.

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