Does a Lack of Protein Cause Leg Edema?

Doctor examining the foot of a woman
A doctor is examining a patient's ankle. (Image: Wavebreakmedia Ltd/Wavebreak Media/Getty Images)

Many people experience edema from time to time. This temporary swelling usually occurs in the lower legs, ankles and feet. Inactivity and an unhealthy diet can lead to this type of swelling, although medical conditions may increase your risk of edema. While severe protein deficiencies are uncommon in the United States, edema in your legs may result from inadequate amounts of protein in your diet. Tell your doctor about any unusual or prolonged swelling in your legs.

Protein

Protein helps build, repair and maintain body tissues and cells. This important nutrient also helps your body produce hormones and enzymes. Protein plays an important role in regulating and balancing the amount of fluid in your tissues, as well as making your muscles contract. Protein consists of various amino acids that work together. Protein requirements vary between individuals, depending on your size and sex. Women of average height and weight require 46 grams of protein per day, while most men require about 56 grams of protein. A variety of foods -- including beans, nuts , whole grains, vegetables and lean meat -- all boost your protein intake.

Deficiency

A nutritious diet that includes a variety of healthy foods generally supplies adequate amounts of protein. Kwashiorkor results from too little protein in the diet, a condition more common in areas of famine. Although children in the United States seldom develop severe protein deficiencies, almost 50 percent of elderly people who reside in nursing homes throughout the United States consume insufficient amounts of dietary protein, according to MedlinePlus. Kwashiorkor can cause edema, as well as other symptoms, including muscle loss, a weakened immune system and changes to the skin and hair.

Edema

The main symptom of edema involves swollen, puffy limbs. Edema may cause puffiness in your face, as well as abdominal bloating, shortness of breath and muscle pain. Although a protein deficiency may cause edema, more likely causes involve eating salty foods, allergies, medications, hormonal changes and standing for long periods.

Precautions

The University of Maryland Medical Center recommends consuming fewer red meats and more beans, tofu and cold-water fish as dietary sources of protein. Eating too much protein may increase your risk of obesity, osteoporosis and kidney stones. Edema may signal the presence of a serious health condition, making it important to tell your doctor about swelling in your lower limbs or other symptoms of edema.

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