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Lack of Protein and Swelling

By Dr. Tina M. St. John

Proteins make up 75 percent of your body. Your liver and other tissues produce new proteins each day, using building blocks from protein-containing foods in your diet. Kwashiorkor, or nutritional edema syndrome, describes a medical condition characterized by profoundly low protein intake with tissue swelling and other symptoms of starvation. Nutritional edema syndrome most frequently occurs in infants and young children; it is rare in the United States, but common in the developing world.

Protein Requirements

Your body requires a substantial amount of dietary protein each day to maintain normal levels of production. Because proteins in your body have a limited period of usefulness, new protein production is necessary to keep pace with turnover. Recommended daily protein intake is 56 g for men and 46 g for women. Children's protein requirements vary by age. During the first year of life, babies require 9 to 11 g of protein daily. From age 1 through 8, daily protein requirements range from 13 to 19 g. Protein needs continue to increase to adult levels throughout the remainder of childhood and adolescence. Kwashiorkor typically occurs with a dietary protein deficiency and normal to high carbohydrate intake. Cultures that subsist largely on grains often have a high rate of nutritional edema syndrome.

Protein Deficiency Diagnosis

Failure to consume enough dietary protein slows new protein production, eventually leading to an abnormally low level in your bloodstream. Your doctor might check your total blood protein level to screen for a deficiency. Your total protein level is normally approximately 6.0 to 8.3 g per deciliter of blood; the normal range might vary slightly from one testing lab to another. A low total protein level occurs with several medical conditions, including protein malnutrition and liver or kidney disease. Swelling, or edema, might occur with any condition that causes a low blood protein level.

Mechanism of Swelling

Your blood consists of water, blood cells, proteins and other dissolved chemicals. Dissolved proteins hold water within your bloodstream, preventing it from leaking into your body tissues. As blood protein falls to abnormally low levels, water leaks from your circulation into your tissues, causing swelling. With kwashiorkor, the levels of sodium and potassium in your bloodstream become unbalanced, further contributing to tissue swelling.


A well-balanced diet with adequate intake of protein-containing foods prevents a nutritional protein deficiency. Good sources of protein for your nutrition plan include nonfat milk, yogurt and cheese; eggs and poultry; lean red meats; fish and seafood; and nuts, seeds and dry beans. If you follow a strict vegan diet, be sure to include a variety of protein sources to ensure adequate intake of all of the essential protein building blocks, or amino acids.

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