The majority of Americans get more than twice the amount of protein they need and will never have to worry about symptoms of protein deficiency. Others, who are a little low on the nutrient, won’t exhibit any symptoms and can function just fine on a day-to-day basis. However, a more severe lack of protein in your diet can result in a range of negative health effects.
Undernutrition and Kwashiorkor
The term “undernutrition” can describe a general caloric deficiency or a protein deficiency, since many of the symptoms are similar. People suffering from undernutrition are typically underweight, and have dry skin and dry, fragile hair that may fall out easily. Over months of undernutrition, the body will break down muscle fibers for energy, resulting in serious health problems ranging from dehydration to death. Kwashiorkor designates a specific type of malnutrition -- that of not getting nearly enough protein. Although kwashiorkor is very rare in Americans, up to half of the nation’s elderly population may be at risk for it. Symptoms can include diarrhea, fatigue, hair and skin color changes, loss of muscle mass, reduced immunity, lethargy, rashes, swelling and a protruding stomach. Long-term kwashiorkor can result in critical health issues such as coma, shock, permanent mental or physical disabilities or death.
Protein Deficiency Signs
Protein-deficient individuals may experience weight loss, muscle weakness or muscle wasting, swelling due to water retention, low blood pressure, low heart rate, anemia and liver problems, according to Dr. Nick Campos, who is a chiropractor based in West Hollywood, California. Additionally, middle-aged and older adults who experience sarcopenia, a natural loss of muscle mass due to aging, may lose more muscle mass if they are not getting enough protein in their daily diets.
While being a little short on protein can and does impact your health, the effects are mild enough that they often go unnoticed. For example, dietary proteins have the task of building and maintaining lean muscle mass, so if you’re not getting quite enough, you may not get as strong with progressive resistance training as you would if you were eating more protein. You may also have trouble absorbing certain nutrients, such as niacin, iron, zinc or calcium. Your overall immunity may also suffer, which could take the form of getting more colds than usual or taking longer to recover from injuries.
Other signs of a minor protein deficiency can take months or years to develop. They might include blood sugar instability, muscle or joint pain and general feelings of weakness or fatigue. Before you chalk up your symptoms to protein deficiency, you may want to keep a food journal for several days or weeks to track how much protein you get on a daily basis. Adult women should aim for a minimum of 46 grams daily, and adult men 56 grams. See your doctor to discuss symptoms and treatment before you make any changes yourself.
- Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine: The Protein Myth
- Merck Manual Home Health Handbook: Undernutrition
- Medline Plus: Kwashiorkor
- Columbia University: Very Low Protein Diet
- Daily Garnish: 5 Warning Signs You Aren't Getting Enough Protein
- Elephant Journal: Could You Be Protein Deficient?
- DrNickCampos.com: Vegetarians' Nightmare - Vitamin B and Protein Deficiencies
- University of New Mexico: Sarcopenia
- Better Health Channel: Protein