A severe deficiency of dietary protein causes kwashiorkor. Many children in developing countries, who are given a high-carbohydrate and low-protein diet after they are weaned from breast milk, develop kwashiorkor. While it is more common in children, kwashiorkor can occur on anyone who is on a predominantly carbohydrate-rich diet. Treatment of kwashiorkor involves the intake of foods that contain adequate amounts of proteins, carbohydrates and other essential nutrients. To avoid the onset of any complications, it is important to make gradual changes to the diet under medical supervision.
Incidence of Kwashiorkor
Kwashiorkor, also referred to as "protein-calorie malnutrition," occurs most commonly in areas of the world that have a limited supply of food due to political unrest, drought or other natural disasters. Famine and illiteracy in nutrition are also other factors that contribute to the prevalence of kwashiorkor. While kwashiorkor is extremely rare in the United States, the July 2010 issue of the “International Journal of Dermatology” reported a case of kwashiorkor in a Michigan 8-month-old baby who was primarily fed a diet of rice milk, sweet potatoes and bananas.
Causes of Kwashiorkor in the United States
Although most people in the United States consume ample amounts of proteins, PubMed Health reports that about one-half of the elderly people in nursing homes have diets that are low in protein. The Nutrition MD states that other causes of kwashiorkor in developed countries include medical conditions such as cancer, anorexia nervosa, obesity patients treated with “stomach stapling” and infants on restricted diets. A conscious effort to consume foods that are rich in proteins, with sufficient amount of calories and other nutrients to maintain health, will help to prevent the onset of kwashiorkor.
Symptoms of Kwashiorkor
Kwashiorkor starts with symptoms of irritability, fatigue, lethargy, decreased muscle mass and growth retardation. Over time, the physical appearance changes to include a protruded stomach, edema, discolored hair, pigmented skin, rash and a round face. Children with kwashiorkor are also prone to infections due to an impaired immune system, that further increases the severity of malnutrition. Prolonged protein deficiency also affects the intellectual development in young children. While many of the symptoms of kwashiorkor disappear after treatment with a calorie- and protein-rich diet, these children may never attain their full physical and mental potential.
Diet for Treating Kwashiorkor
Because people with kwashiorkor have been deprived of a nutritionally adequate diet for a long time, a medical professional should monitor and plan their food regimen. Treatment should start with a gradual introduction of carbohydrate foods such as fruits, starchy vegetables, breads and cereals to provide calories. Then the persons should consume foods containing proteins such as meat, fish, poultry, eggs, soybeans and legumes. Milk and milk products are also rich in protein. However, children suffering from kwashiorkor may be lactose-intolerant and may need lactase enzyme supplements to digest milk, yogurt and cheese.
- PubMed Health: Kwashiorkor; January 2010
- Tropical Medicine Central Resource: Kwashiorkor
- "International Journal of Dermatology"; Kwashiorkor from a Severe Dietary Restriction in an 8-month Infant ...; E.P. Tierney, et al.; July 2010
- Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine: Nutrition MD: Protein-Calorie Malnutrition
- Merck Manual: Undernutrition