Although protein deficiency is not a common nutritional problem in the United States, children in impoverished countries more commonly suffer from protein deficiency, a condition known as kwashiorkor. Because protein is a key macronutrient in a child’s diet, a deficiency can have serious health consequences and effects if left untreated. If you suspect a child may be protein deficient, talk to the child’s guardian or physician.
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Protein is present in every tissue in your body. This means a lack of protein in a child’s diet often manifests itself in physical changes such as changes to skin pigmentation, loss of muscle mass, hair loss or a skin rash. Kwashiorkor also can cause an enlarged, protruding abdomen. A child also may experience an increased amount of illness because lack of protein can affect the production of immunoglobulins, which help to promote a healthy immune system. This can make normally minor infections more severe.
A number of tests can help to determine if a child does not have enough protein in her blood. In addition to a physical examination and dietary history, a physician can perform a blood test. This test will check for low blood pH, low blood proteins and a lack of iron in the blood. A urine sample that reveals low urea in the urine also can indicate a lack of protein in the diet.
Having a protein deficiency in a child’s daily diet can be harmful for a child’s growth. While adding extra calories and protein can help to correct kwashiorkor, this must be performed under a physician’s supervision and undertaken over the course of a certain time period because the body can react negatively to a sudden increase in foods. This includes stunted height and growth, including slowed growth in mental function. Even if the child continues a healthy diet for the rest of his life, the lost protein needed for growth can have far-reaching effects. Additional long-term implications can include a lactose intolerance, which means the child cannot digest certain sugars in milk.
In some instances, child protein deficiency can have a severe underlying cause, such as child abuse or neglect, according to MedlinePlus. Because this is a serious health issue, you may wish to contact your local Child & Welfare Services health branch if a child is showing symptoms of severe protein deficiency.