Not Enough Protein

Not Enough Protein

Proteins are compounds made up of components called “amino acids.” There are about 20 common amino acids. Nine of those are considered “essential” because the body is unable to synthesize them, and therefore, they must be furnished by the food you eat.

If your diet does not provide enough of the essential amino acids, there may be serious consequences to your health.

Quality of protein

Foods that supply all of the essential amino acids are called “complete proteins,” and are usually animal foods. Plant foods do not, as a rule, have complete proteins, but by eating combinations of plant foods, called “complementary proteins, ” you can still get a complete protein. 

Click here for more information on incomplete protein.

Major functions of protein

Building material for body tissues such as skin, bones, tendons, muscles, hair, nails and organs

Maintain proper fluid balance in and out of the cells

Promote proper pH of the body by buffering fluids

Major component of hormones, enzymes and antibodies

Needed for blood clotting

Acts as transporters carrying nutrients to all parts of the body

Provide energy and glucose for the brain when carbohydrate is unavailable for that purpose.

Not enough protein

Severe protein deficiency is most often associated with starvation and malnutrition and is a grave cause for concern in under-developed countries, especially among infants and children. Around the world, thousands of children perish every day from the effects of severe protein deficiency.

However, protein deficiency can also occur in more developed countries, where it is usually associated with those living in poverty, the elderly, or those with eating disorders, such as anorexia nervosa. Those addicted to drugs or alcohol may have a diet with not enough protein, since they often use their resources on the addictions instead of food or may suffer from poor appetite due to the effects of the drugs.

Groups most likely to suffer the adverse effects of not enough protein.

Infants and children in underdeveloped countries 

Those around the world who live in extreme poverty

The elderly who live by themselves

Those with eating disorders such as anorexia nervosa, or who simply don’t eat enough

Those addicted to drugs or alcohol, especially when combined with low income

Those pursuing a low-protein diet for whatever reason, including fads or weight loss

Those with tuberculosis or AIDS

Those whose main diet is low in protein due to poor food choices, eating too much junk food

Health Problems Associated with Not Enough Protein

Protein is a vital nutrient for a healthy body. Depending on the level of protein deficiency, a person who does not eat enough protein may suffer from any of the following symptoms:




Dry skin or skin lesions

Edema (swelling)

Fatty liver


Heart attack - wasting of heart muscle

Inability to maintain body temperature


Lack of growth in children

Loss of appetite

Loss, thinning or discoloration of hair

Malnutrition - poor absorption of nutrients

Muscle wasting

Poor appetite

Reproductive problems

Slow development in children

Susceptibility to infections and disease

Weight loss


One form of protein deficiency is called kwashiorkor, which is associated with sudden malnutrition, such as when a mother weans one child to begin feeding another. In less developed countries or poverty stricken areas of more developed countries, the weaned child may receive a less adequate diet than when it was feeding on the nutrient-dense breast milk, resulting in not enough protein.

Kwashiorkor is often the reason for the distended bellies in those heart-wrenching photos of children that are used to encourage donations to world hunger relief organizations. The disruption of the fluid balance and a susceptibility to bacterial growth and infections and infestations, due to not enough protein causes the swollen belly. The liver may also be affected since they lack the protein to provide transporters to carry the lipids out of the liver and to synthesize the enzymes needed for liver detoxification.


Protein deficiency over a longer period of time may result in a condition called Marasmus. It's most common in infants and means that the child is literally starving to death. The distinguishing features of a child with marasmus is that they have very little flesh covering their bones and have spindly arms and legs. Due to a lack of protein, the muscles literally waste away. This muscle wasing includes the heart muscle, causing weakness and eventually even death.

Long term

If the protein deficiency is not addressed, the child will be unable to develop properly, since it will lack the basic materials needed for growth, as well as the enzymes and hormones needed for so many body processes. Protein deficiency can be self-perpetuating since over time, the body will be unable to digest and absorb even the protein it does get.

Timely intervention

The effects of protein deficiency can be reversed if intervention occurs before too much damage has been done. In severe cases, it requires very careful introduction of protein into the diet, in small amounts at first, until the system is recovered sufficiently to handle larger servings.

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