Protein malnutrition usually occurs when a person is starving, either intentionally because of fasting or an eating disorder, or unintentionally because of a lack of food. Although unlikely, it can also be caused by a lack of protein in an otherwise ample diet. Secondary protein malnutrition can also occur with any disorders that affect the gastrointestinal tract and with wasting disorders like cancer or AIDS. This condition is rare among healthy people in the United States and other developed countries, where most people have more than enough food to eat. In studies performed at the University of Arizona College of Nursing and elsewhere, however, it has been found that up to 85 percent of adults who live in nursing homes may suffer some degree of protein malnutrition. Left untreated, protein malnutrition will result in potentially fatal health problems, including heart and kidney failure.
One of the first signs of protein malnutrition is fatigue, often accompanied by lethargy and irritability. It becomes difficult to stay awake, perform normal tasks or even to think clearly.
Skin and Hair Changes
The skin of a person with protein malnutrition becomes pale, dry and cold, and may appear to be thinning. Skin rashes and pigment changes are common. Hair may become thin and brittle, and may develop a gray or reddish cast. It may also fall out easily.
Fat and Muscle Wasting
Muscles shrink to the point where bones protrude and loose skin may hang from the body. This is most notable in areas of the body that are normally well padded with fat. Bones in the face and ribs may appear especially prominent.
Loose stools are common as digestion becomes difficult and nutrient absorption problems begin to develop. With prolonged diarrhea, there is often dehydration.
People with protein malnutrition are highly susceptible to infections because their immune systems are weakened. They are more likely to develop bacterial infections such as gastroenteritis, urinary tract infections and pneumonia. Anyone who is bedridden and suffering from protein malnutrition is more susceptible to skin ulcers (bedsores) and wounds that will not heal properly. Hormone-like substances that are released when the body is fighting an infection can cause loss of appetite, further muscle wasting and low protein levels in the blood.
Edema is an abnormal swelling in the body, most often in the feet, ankle and legs. It results from a fluid and electrolyte imbalance and weakening of the veins in the legs. Fluids actually become trapped in certain areas of the body and the skin in those areas may become taut and shiny. When edema is present in people with protein malnutrition, they are much less resistant to infection. You can test for edema by pressing gently on swollen areas for several seconds. If edema is present, the skin will stay depressed after you remove your finger.
A classic sign of severe protein malnutrition is a distended belly that results from weakened abdominal muscles and swollen intestines. The abdominal cavity fills with fluids, leading to a "pregnant" belly look.
In children, a most noticeable sign of unresolved protein malnutrition is stunted growth and failure to gain weight.