Protein poisoning is an unusual nutritional deficiency where patients consume primarily lean meat, with no other sources of nutrients, and develop health complications as a result. This condition appears to be a combination of factors including not getting enough calories, receiving inadequate nutrients, and experiencing stress as a result of environmental factors like very cold weather. Patients with access to health care and nutritional options rarely develop or die from protein poisoning, but it can be a risk in remote communities during periods of limited food availability.
This condition is also known as “rabbit starvation,” a reference to the idea that communities relying heavily on rabbit, a very lean meat, could be at risk of protein poisoning. Patients with protein poisoning get the bulk of their nutrition from lean meat, usually because they are subsisting on hunting in the winter, when they cannot supplement their diets with plant foods. Often, the victim is actively searching for food, expending more calories than usual and thus requiring more, even as she consumes less because the caloric value of lean meat is limited.
In patients with this condition, the body does not get the nutrients it needs to function. The patient may experience a constant sense of hunger, even right after eating, until he eats carbohydrates to balance out the diet. The liver also becomes overloaded with protein and cannot process it as quickly as the patient can eat it. Patients may become fatigued and typically develop headaches and diarrhea. Blood pressure and heart rate fall, sometimes dangerously low.
Historically, people experiencing protein poisoning often consumed things like the livers of the animals they hunted in an attempt to address their hunger. This led to additional complications, as patients developed vitamin A toxicity from eating too much liver. The issue for patients with this condition is not necessarily an excess of protein, but dietary imbalances leading to the inability to function normally.
Most indigenous people who rely heavily on meat-based diets consume animals with a high fat content, like whales and seals, and thus are at low risk of protein poisoning because they receive more balanced nutrition. This condition can become a concern when communities are forced to rely on subsistence hunting of rabbits, deer, and other lean animals in harsh weather conditions where other sources of nutrition are not available. Rarely do people in industrialized areas develop protein poisoning as a result of extreme diets; diets for weight training and conditioning that rely on high protein usually include cautions to eat a mixture of meats and to consume some plants as well to prevent this problem.