What is Protein Deficiency?

Karyn Maier
Karyn Maier

Protein deficiency is a state of malnutrition in which insufficient amounts of protein is taken in for the body to utilize in order to produce energy. This condition is largely responsible for the high incidence of starvation and disease in many Third World countries, causing death to millions of people each year. Sadly, many children under the age of five make up the majority of victims. However, protein deficiency also occurs in developed countries, primarily due to poverty. Certain individuals may also become prone to protein deficiency, such as crash dieters and vegetarians who neglect to properly balance their diet.

Several types of liver disease. A protein deficiency could lead to steatosis.
Several types of liver disease. A protein deficiency could lead to steatosis.

Protein is necessary for the body to synthesize 13 amino acids and to break down polypeptide molecules into the nine essential amino acids that the body cannot manufacture on its own. Collectively, these acids constantly work to replenish tissue in the body, so they play an important role in the maintenance of healthy bones, muscles, and organs. The body also uses protein to produce hemoglobin in red blood cells, the vehicle by which oxygen is transported to muscles and organs. In addition, without sufficient protein, the lungs and immune system would cease to function properly.

Sunflower seeds are a good source of protein.
Sunflower seeds are a good source of protein.

The body interprets a state of protein deficiency as a signal to enter into starvation mode. As a result, the body attempts to compensate for the deficiency by pulling out stores of protein in the body for recycling. The first source the body will turn to make a protein withdrawal is the muscles, which leads to a condition known as muscle wasting. In fact, weakness resulting from a loss in muscle mass is one of the first symptoms of protein deficiency.

Spinach is a good source vegetable source of protein.
Spinach is a good source vegetable source of protein.

Other symptoms of protein deficiency include weight loss, diarrhea, and an accumulation of fluids (edema) in the legs and abdomen. Initial outward signs include hair loss, scaly skin, and lethargy due to a lack of energy. If the deficiency continues, organs will begin to malfunction. For instance, since protein utilization is involved in the transport of lipoproteins and cholesterol, a lack thereof will lead to steatosis hepatitis, or fatty liver disease. In addition, the body will be unable to maintain normal levels of leukocytes, leaving the body deficient in white blood cells and the immune system unable to fight infections.

Most animal products are high in protein.
Most animal products are high in protein.

Generally speaking, children require 0.5 grams of protein for every pound (0.5 kilograms) of body weight and adults a total of approximately 60 grams of protein per day. However, pregnant or nursing women may require more. Aside from meat, eggs, and dairy, particularly good sources of protein include whole grains, beans, nuts, sunflower seeds, brown rice, potatoes, spinach, and broccoli.

Protein deficiency is common in instances of malnutrition.
Protein deficiency is common in instances of malnutrition.
Nuts provide a good source of protein.
Nuts provide a good source of protein.
Karyn Maier
Karyn Maier

Contributing articles to wiseGEEK is just one of Karyn’s many professional endeavors. She is also a magazine writer and columnist, mainly for health-related publications, as well as the author of four books. Karyn lives in New York’s Catskill Mountain region and specializes in topics about green living and botanical medicine.

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Discussion Comments


@anon314242: Don't get caught up in fads. A balanced diet is more important. Include fruits, vegetables, herbs, nuts, fish, and meat! Stop picking just a few; eat everything! You can get enough carbs from only fruit and veggies, so supplementing carbs with wheat and corn is not needed.

Research has shown cancer fighting agents are plants and fungi, so make sure to eat lots of them! Vitamin D is needed for dark skinned people who live in cold climates! If you're a light skinned person and get a little sun, you don't need vitamin D milk or any of that junk! Fact: most people on the planet earth cannot fully digest lactose! That is why yogurt and cheese were made, since lactic acid bacteria break down lactose into a more digestible form.


I am 17. I was diagnosed with a protein deficiency when I was 16. We found out what was wrong. I was 81 pounds up until three weeks ago. Finally I've gained some weight. I'm now 96 pounds. I'm so thankful for my doctor and my family and my fiancé for their support and helping and looking out for me. God bless them.


I cut carbs completely out of my diet and feel fantastic. I live on a diet of mostly meat, which is the highest quality protein available. I also a have a healthy dose of animal fats to ensure my nutrition doesn't suffer.


The carbs fan below knows nothing about glycogen and how to measure it. The body has limited ability to store glycogen so too many carbs will make you fat. Protein deficiency in long term affects your mood, your energy and finally, your well-being.


You guys are completely mad. Protein for energy? I think you mean carbs for energy. Weak muscles? I think you mean lack of carbs. Mother's milk has only 5 percent protein, and that's the biggest growth spurt we will ever go through. White rice has 8 percent, protein guys. All plants have all the amino acids as well.

Where does all this junk come from? Combining beans and rice or some such nonsense. Carbs people, and stop eating fat so you don't develop diabetes. Eat fat, get fat. Eat sugar and starch, you will be fine, unless your bloodstream is full of fat from the day before and then you will get an energy spike and crash. Fat is the culprit. This was proven in 1927.


Rickets are when you have a lack of vitamin D and so your bones start bending. This is bad because well, you wouldn't want to have bent bones because it will really hurt. Also, eventually your bones will snap and break. Like my cello string. It snapped before my concert today and so I couldn't perform. Hope this might help.


SurfNturf- I can answer that. Rickets is a disease caused by malnutrition in which the body does not absorb sufficient levels of vitamin D. This is turn causes bones to be brittle slower growth is associated with this condition in children.

I also want to add the people that go through gastric bypass surgery often have problems absorbing protein and sufficient levels of nutrients.

They often suffer from protein deficiency malnutrition and really have to take a high level of supplements as a result.


Mutsy- I did not know that. I just wanted to ask what are rickets?


I just want to add that a plant-based diet with no meat along with no sun exposure and having milk allergies puts a person in the highest risk of developing a severe protein deficiency.

Fish, oil, liver, milk, eggs, and some sun exposure offer the body the opportunity to absorb protein and vitamin D essential to keeping the bones fit and strong.

Without incorporating these things into a daily diet might cause you to develop signs of protein deficiency.

For example, pain in the bones along with weak muscles and leading indicators that you might be suffering from protein deficiency. If the condition is not treated properly, it may lead to protein deficiency diseases such as rickets, Cancer, cardiovascular illness that may lead to death and severe asthma in children. These are all effects of protein deficiency.

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