What is Protein-Calorie Malnutrition?

Laura M. Sands

Protein-calorie malnutrition is characterized by inadequate protein intake. The result of this condition results in, among other things, a loss of weight and a dangerous decline in immunity. Also known simply as malnutrition, protein-calorie malnutrition is most commonly found in third-world countries where diets consist mainly of starchy foods and vegetables, but where there aren’t enough animal-based foods or their byproducts. Protein-calorie malnutrition is known to present itself in two distinct forms: kwashiorkor and marasmus.

Those who consume limited diets heavy in starches, such as wheat and barley, might be more likely to develop kwashiorkor.
Those who consume limited diets heavy in starches, such as wheat and barley, might be more likely to develop kwashiorkor.

A person affected by protein-calorie malnutrition is likely to have edema and dermatitis, as well as severe anemia and alopecia. These individuals also frequently experience a malfunctioning of key bodily functions. Parts of the body most severely affected by malnutrition include the kidney, the liver, the respiratory system, the nervous system and the cardiovascular system. People with this condition will also experience a marked decrease in muscle mass and poor wound healing, as well as a decreased immunity against a host of other diseases and viral infections.

Children who live in poor, rural areas and developing countries are at an increased risk for kwashiorkor.
Children who live in poor, rural areas and developing countries are at an increased risk for kwashiorkor.

One form of this condition is known as kwashiorkor. This specific type of malnutrition is common in places where drought, famine, war and other catastrophic events interrupt or outright prevent a healthy, balanced food supply. Beyond a compromised food supply, kwashiorkor may also be the result of infection and toxic exposure.

Elderly people who live alone and often skip meals may become malnourished without adequate protein in their diet.
Elderly people who live alone and often skip meals may become malnourished without adequate protein in their diet.

Kwashiorkor does occur in developed countries, although in these countries it more commonly stems from an abused individual being deliberately starved. The symptoms of kwashiorkor are also found in anorexic patients who have purposely starved themselves. This condition can sometimes occur even in hospital settings, particularly in cases of extremely ill individuals, such as those stricken by cancer. Protein-calorie malnutrition may also affect the elderly, individuals who have undergone gastric bypass surgery and infants with restricted diets.

Malnutrition is a common cause of chronic liver failure.
Malnutrition is a common cause of chronic liver failure.

Marasmus, a second type of protein-calorie malnutrition, is usually found in infants. This form primarily occurs when infants are switched from breastfeeding to solid foods that may be high in calories, but that still do not provide enough protein. Tuberculosis, HIV and gastrointestinal infections can also contribute to this type of protein-calorie malnutrition.

Protein-calorie malnutrition can be a fatal condition if not properly detected and treated in its earliest stages. The longer it is untreated, in fact, the higher the incidents of severe organ and tissue damage even in cases where malnutrition can be reversed. When it is not treated, however, a protein-calorie malnourished person will experience shock before entering a coma and eventually dying.

An inadequate quantity of protein in a child's diet can cause her immune system to decline.
An inadequate quantity of protein in a child's diet can cause her immune system to decline.

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Discussion Comments

Rotergirl

One of my co-workers nearly died of this in college. She became a vegan and didn't do any research about it. She was eating mostly salad and the occasional slice of cheese pizza. She became very ill and had to be hospitalized for about three weeks while she received IV nutrition.

The hospital dietician came to see her to help her learn how to eat a balanced vegan/vegetarian diet. She said she had no idea there was so much to learn, so she decided she would eat primarily vegetables and then fish and eggs occasionally. She still has to watch her protein levels since her doctor told her she might have done permanent damage to her system. He said she would have to watch her protein intake for the rest of her life. She drinks a lot of protein shakes and has her blood levels checked a few times a year.

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