Proteins are essential components of all living organisms and are made up of enzymes, amino acids and antibodies that are necessary for keeping our bodies healthy and functioning properly. Not ingesting an adequate amount of protein can lead to serious deficiencies that can lead to more serious life-threatening conditions. Side effects of low protein counts include muscle degeneration, symptoms associated with kwashiorkor, a form of malnutrition, and swelling or edema.
Protein is needed to grow and maintain lean mass. Low protein counts can lead to rapid muscle degeneration in individuals. According to the National Federation of Personal Trainers “Sports Nutrition Manual,” the reason muscle degeneration occurs so rapidly during protein deficiency is because the body begins to horde all available enzymes and amino acids. When this happens, the metabolism begins to switch into starvation mode and begin to preserve calories by allocating energy only to the most vital of functions. A slow down in calorie burning occurs and muscles begin to lose strength, mass and effectively weaken until the body can no longer afford to lose any more. At this point other protein fortified components such as skin, nails and hair begin to fall out and get weaker.
Kwashiorkor is another side effect of a low protein count. Kwashiorkor is a type of malnutrition that develops when there is not adequate protein in the diet. The National Institutes of Health reports that kwashiorkor is most common in areas where there is famine, limited food supply and low levels of nutritional education. This disease is more common in poor countries. It often occurs during a drought or other natural disaster, or during political unrest. These conditions are responsible for a lack of food, which leads to malnutrition. Continued protein deficiency will lead to noticeable symptoms of kwashiorkor such as changes in skin pigment, hair loss, brittle nails, protruding belly and diarrhea. Getting more calories and protein will correct kwashiorkor, if treatment is started early enough. Children who have previously developed this condition will never reach their potential height and growth.
Edema is another side effect of low protein counts. Edema is swelling caused by a build up of fluid ensnared in your body's tissues. Edema is most commonly noticed in your hands, arms, feet, ankles and legs but it can occur in any part of the body. According to Michael J. Gibney, author of the book “Introduction to Human Nutrition,” when protein counts in the bloodstream get extremely low, there is a decrease in colloidal osmotic pressure which then allows fluid to escape from blood vessels into your tissues, resulting in edema. The Mayo Clinic says that other symptoms of edema include stretched or shiny skin, increased abdominal size and skin that retains a dimple after being pressed for several seconds.