Common Signs And Symptoms Of Protein Deficiency


Protein is an essential macronutrient that plays a vital role in overall health and wellbeing. It is needed for building and repairing tissues, making enzymes and hormones, and providing structural components to cells.

Protein deficiency, also known as protein-energy malnutrition, refers to a condition where protein intake is inadequate to meet the body’s needs over an extended period. This article will discuss the common signs and symptoms, risk factors, best food sources, tips to prevent protein deficiency, and frequently asked questions related to this condition.

What Are The Common Signs And Symptoms Of Having Protein Deficiency? 

Some of the most common signs and symptoms of protein deficiency include:

Common Signs And Symptoms

  • Edema or fluid retention – When protein levels are low, the body struggles to maintain the correct balance of fluid, often leading to swelling in the hands, feet, abdomen, or face. 
  • Fatigue and weakness – Lack of protein can cause tiredness, reduced strength and endurance, and an inability to carry out daily tasks. Muscle wasting over time also contributes to fatigue.
  • Hair loss – Low protein intake affects the hair follicles leading to thinning and brittle hair which falls out more easily.
  • Skin, nails, and teeth issues – Protein deficiency shows up as dry, flaky skin, peeling nails, and development of cavities or tooth loss.
  • Loss of muscle mass – As protein is essential for building and repairing muscles, deficiency leads to the shrinkage of muscle fibers. This effect is most prominent in the buttocks and shoulders. 
  • Frequent infections – Protein deficiency impairs immune function increasing susceptibility to infections. Poor wound healing is also associated.
  • Stunted growth in children – Children require adequate protein for growth and development. Deficiency can lead to stunted height and low body weight.
  • Impaired mental health – Protein malnutrition may result in apathy, irritability, anxiety or depression as amino acid balance affects neurotransmitters. 
  • Greater risk of bone fractures – Lack of protein leads to loss of bone mass increasing the risk of fractures and delayed healing.

In severe cases, protein deficiency may also cause life-threatening symptoms like swelling of the abdomen and legs, heart failure or respiratory distress.

If any of these warning signs are noticed, its imperative to seek medical advice immediately.

Risk Factors Of Having Protein Deficiency 

There are several risk factors that can predispose an individual to developing protein deficiency:

  • Inadequate dietary protein intake – Eating a diet that lacks sufficient high-quality protein on a daily basis increases the risk for deficiency. This includes vegetarian or vegan diets that are not properly balanced.
  • Poor absorption of protein – Certain gastrointestinal conditions like Crohn’s disease, celiac disease, gastritis or pancreatitis impair protein absorption increasing deficiency risk. 
  • Higher protein requirements – Growing children, adolescents, pregnant women, athletes and older adults need higher protein intake. Inadequate intake in these groups raises deficiency risk.
  • Appetite loss – Health conditions causing chronic appetite loss or altered hunger signals like cancer or HIV can lead to reduced protein ingestion. Eating disorders like anorexia also contribute. 
  • Alcoholism – Excessive alcohol consumption often replaces nutritious high-protein foods leading to inadequate intake. It also impairs nutrient absorption.
  • Inflammatory bowel diseases – Damaged intestines from conditions like ulcerative colitis or certain surgeries decrease protein absorption from food. 
  • Kidney disease – Damaged kidneys cannot effectively filter protein breakdown products from the bloodstream leading to imbalanced protein levels.
  • Diabetes – Poorly managed diabetes increases protein loss through the kidneys as well as other diabetes-related complications affecting protein metabolism.
  • Poverty – The inability to access high-quality protein foods due to socioeconomic factors increases risk of deficiency in impoverished populations.
  • Malnutrition – Starvation, famine, or diseases causing malnutrition deplete protein reserves and intake driving deficiency.
  • Elderly living alone – Older adults living alone often have monotonous low-protein diets increasing their risk of deficiency.
  • Strict dieting and fasting – Following extremely restrictive diets or prolonged fasting leads to severe protein inadequacy over time.

Recognizing these risk factors is key to preventing protein deficiency through proper dietary adjustments or nutritional supplements if required.

Best Foods To Increase Protein Intake

Here are some of the best food for boosting your protein intake through diet:

Protein is an important macronutrient that plays various roles in the body including building and repairing tissues, enzyme and hormone production, and supporting immune function. Many people do not get sufficient amounts of protein in their diets which can negatively impact health and body composition over time.

The good news is that incorporating more high-quality, protein-rich foods into your daily diet can help increase protein intake in a healthy way. 

Protein Rich Foods

  • Lean Meat and Poultry

Foods like chicken, turkey, lean cuts of beef and pork are packed with protein while being relatively low in fat when prepared in healthy ways. A 3-ounce cooked serving of lean meat contains 25–30 grams of protein. Meat and poultry provide all the essential amino acids your body needs.

  • Fish and Seafood

Fatty fish like salmon, tuna, mackerel and sardines provide about 20–25 grams of protein per 3-ounce cooked serving. They also supply anti-inflammatory omega-3 fatty acids. Shellfish including shrimp, clams, oysters and mussels are high in protein too.

  • Eggs

One large whole egg contains about 6 grams of protein with all essential amino acids. You can prepare eggs in different ways like boiling, scrambling or making omelets.

  • Greek Yogurt 

Plain Greek yogurt provides 15–20 grams of protein per 6-ounce serving. It makes a great breakfast, snack, dessert or substitution for sour cream.

  • Milk, Cheese, and Cottage Cheese

One cup of milk has about 8 grams of protein while 1 ounce of cheese provides 6–8 grams. Cottage cheese is a top source with 14 grams per half-cup.

  • Beans, Legumes, and Lentils 

Beans like kidney, black, pinto, and chickpeas contain about 7–10 grams of plant-based protein per half-cup serving. Lentils are also a good choice with 9 grams per half cup.

  • Tofu and Soy Products

Half a cup of tofu contains about 10 grams of soy-based vegan protein. Edamame beans and tempeh also provide protein.

  • Nuts and Nut Butters

An ounce of nuts like almonds, walnuts or pistachios offers 6–7 grams of plant protein. Nut butters like peanut and almond are delicious options too.

  • Boost Your Protein Intake

Consuming more of these high-protein foods at meals and snacks helps ensure you meet your daily protein needs for good health. Aim to get protein from a variety of both animal and plant sources. Pairing different plant proteins like beans and rice provides all the essential amino acids. With so many tasty protein-rich foods to choose from, it’s easy to boost your intake.


In summary, protein deficiency from inadequate intake can lead to various signs like edema, fatigue, stunted growth, frequent infections, and impaired wound healing. Major risk factors include insufficient dietary protein, malabsorption conditions, higher requirements in certain groups, and chronic diseases.

Consuming foods like eggs, fish, legumes, dairy, soy, and lean meats provides essential protein, while smoothies, shakes, and strategic combining can enhance intake. Preventive tips involve eating protein at all meals, monitoring portion sizes, exercising regularly, and staying hydrated.

Identifying and addressing personal risk factors along with sufficient dietary protein can help maintain good health and prevent protein deficiency.

Frequently Asked Questions

1. How much protein does the average adult need daily?

The Recommended Daily Allowance (RDA) for protein is 0.8 grams per kilogram of body weight or 46 grams for women and 56 grams for men on average per day. Higher amounts are recommended for pregnant, breastfeeding women, athletes or the elderly.

2. What are the symptoms of severe or critical protein deficiency? 

Severe protein deficiency can cause symptoms like pronounced muscle wasting, abnormal heart rate, respiratory failure, pronounced edema, abnormal blood clotting, kidney failure and eventually death if untreated over prolonged periods.

3. Does protein deficiency affect children differently than adults?

Yes, protein deficiency in children can lead to failure to grow at expected rates, swelling of skin and face, lack of muscular coordination, apathy, irritability and greater impacts on cognitive development.

4. How long does protein deficiency take to develop?

When protein intake falls below requirements, the body’s protein stores become depleted usually in 2-3 weeks. Mild symptoms may begin during this time leading to more pronounced symptoms within 2-3 months if prolonged.

5. What blood markers indicate protein deficiency?

Low levels of serum albumin, low total protein, elevated alkaline phosphatase, low prealbumin, low transferrin, and low retinol-binding protein levels may indicate protein deficiency on blood tests

Dr. Jun Ren is a dedicated and experienced registered dietitian and nutritionist who is committed to helping people achieve their health goals through personalized nutrition plans. With a passion for promoting healthy eating habits and preventing chronic diseases, Dr. Ren has been able to assist numerous clients in improving their overall quality of life.

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