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Symptoms & Risks of Protein Deficiency

By Lawrence Adams

Protein is one of three primary types of macronutrients that provide your body with energy, regulate its functioning and facilitate development. A protein consists of a chain of amino acids that your body uses for energy and to make new proteins. Of the 20 types of amino acids, your body can create 11 and relies on dietary sources for the remaining nine. Failure to consume enough protein causes protein deficiency, a serious medical condition.

Dietary Reference Intake

Your body relies on protein to maintain its cells and perform important metabolic functions. Daily protein requirements differ by your age and sex. The Institute of Medicine recommends that young children receive 13 to 19 grams of protein each day. Adult males should consume 56 g of protein daily, while adult females need 46 grams per day. A woman's protein needs increase when she is pregnant or breastfeeding. If you are pregnant or nursing, aim to eat 71 grams of protein every day. Consuming fewer than 10 grams of protein daily may not provide enough essential nutrients for your body and could cause protein deficiency.


Physical symptoms of protein deficiency include altered loss of muscle mass, skin pigmentation, diarrhea, changes in the color or texture of hair, protruding belly, rashes and swelling. People with protein deficiency also experience fatigue, lethargy, irritability and apathy. Children with protein deficiency fail to meet benchmarks for weight and growth, giving them a wasted appearance.


Experiencing protein deficiency during childhood causes developmental delays. Protein deficient children never reach adult size and may experience mild mental retardation, digestive problems or pancreatic disorders. A prolonged period of protein deficiency causes your immune system to become weakened. As a result, children and adults with protein deficiency succumb more easily to infections. People with severe protein deficiency eventually go into shock and may die.

Vulnerable Populations

While protein deficiency commonly occurs in developing countries, it is rare in the United States. Certain populations are more vulnerable to develop a protein deficiency. Vegetarians and vegans rely on plant sources of protein, making it difficult for them to receive all nine essential amino acids. Children and pregnant women may also be at increased risk for protein deficiency.


Protein deficiency can be treated if it is caught early enough. Although children with protein deficiency will not grow to full size, their other medical symptoms will likely improve with treatment. Treatment begins by feeding the protein-deficient person foods rich in carbohydrates and fats. After overall caloric consumption increases, the individual should be introduced to protein-rich foods. If you think your protein intake is too low, incorporate more protein into your diet by eating peanut butter, lean meat, beans, soy products, nonfat dairy products, nuts and seeds. Consult a doctor about your potential risk of becoming deficient in protein or other nutrients before beginning a vegan or vegetarian diet.

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