What Is Protein Malnutrition?

Extreme fatigue may be a sign of protein malnutrition.
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  • Written By: D. Jeffress
  • Edited By: Jenn Walker
  • Last Modified Date: 30 March 2014
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Protein malnutrition occurs when there is an extreme lack of healthy protein in the diet. It is a common condition in countries that are stricken by famine or drought, though a neglected child or helpless adult in a first-world country can succumb to the problem as well. Malnutrition can cause a host of symptoms, including swelling in the extremities, diarrhea, fatigue, and gastric distension. In most cases, protein malnutrition can be cured with a carefully planned diet that gradually increases the patient's intake of protein and calories.

There are two main classifications of protein malnutrition. Kwashiorkor refers to a diet that is extremely protein-deficient, though a person may still consume a close-to-average amount of calories from other sources. Marasmus is a deficiency in both protein and calories, and comes closer to resembling total starvation. Both types are more common in young children and the elderly, and both can result in serious health consequences if inadequate diets persist.

Protein malnutrition is prominent in very poor regions across the world. People who do not have access to consistent food supplies, health care, or educational resources are at the highest risk. In developed countries, protein malnutrition can affect people who are unable to care for themselves, especially infants and nursing home residents. Since protein malnutrition is entirely preventable, many international organizations are working toward ending famine and educating citizens about the widespread problem.


The symptoms of malnutrition depend on a person's age and the severity of the condition. Children often suffer from frequent infections, have distended stomachs, and fail to reach average height and muscle mass. A person of any age with protein malnutrition can have a widespread skin rash, diarrhea, extreme fatigue, and swelling in the hands and feet. Without treatment, an individual can go into shock or slip into a coma.

When a doctor suspects malnutrition based on a patient's physical condition, he or she can perform a series of diagnostic tests to determine the nature of the problem. Blood tests usually reveal low protein, low blood sugar, and anemia. Stool and urine samples are analyzed to check for the presence of parasites and infectious bacteria and viruses.

Treatment decisions are made based on the severity of a patient's symptoms. People who are at risk of hypoglycemia or shock are immediately admitted into a hospital so doctors can provide intravenous fluids and medications. People who are malnourished but not in immediate danger of shock or coma can usually be treated on an outpatient basis. Doctors and nutritionists can outline a very specific diet plan for caregivers to provide. Small meals containing high levels of carbohydrates and fats are introduced, and proteins are added once a person begins regaining energy and swelling subsides. With the proper care most patients are able to fully recover from their symptoms.


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