12 Signs of Protein Deficiency & How Much do You Need

Protein is called the building block of life. It is a component of every cell in our body. Protein is the building block for skin, bones, muscles, cartilage,  and blood. Our body uses it to build and repair tissue. It is also used by our body to make enzymes, hormones, and other body chemicals. Protein is a macronutrient, which means that our body needs relatively large amounts of it to remain healthy.

Unfortunately, unlike carbohydrates and proteins, our body cannot store protein. So, it is crucial to eat a protein-rich diet to stay healthy. Although protein deficiency is very rare in the US, people with anorexia, cancer, Crohn’s disease, and in some cases, vegans can develop a protein deficiency. Read on to learn more about protein deficiency and the signs of protein deficiency.


What is protein deficiency?

Protein deficiency is a condition when your diet is unable to meet the protein requirement of the body. According to the 2015 o 2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans, an adult should be 10 to 35 percent of their calories from proteins. Children should get 10 to 30 percent of their calories from proteins (1).

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data shows that on average, men in the US get 16.6% of their calories from protein and woman get 15.6 of their calories from protein (2). Though deficiency of protein due to low intake is rare in the US, it can occur in some rare cases. These include –

  • If a person has an eating disorder like anorexia
  • If a person is in the later stages of cancer
  • If a person has difficulty in absorbing nutrients due to irritable bowel syndrome
  • If a person has certain genetic conditions

A deficiency in protein can cause changes in body composition and can lead to muscle wasting over time. The most serious form of protein deficiency is known as Kwashiorkor. It occurs in children in developing countries.

Protein deficiency symptoms

Protein deficiency can impact various aspects of your health. Here are the symptoms of protein deficiency –

1. Edema

Albumin, the protein that circulates in our blood, performs the critical task of keeping the fluid from building up in the tissues. When the serum albumin levels are low due to protein deficiency, the fluid accumulates in the body, causing swelling (3). This accumulation of fluid is the reason why protein deficiency leads to bloated belly, a classic sign of Kwashiorkor. A person deficient in protein can also develop swelling in legs, feet, and hands.

2.  Loss of muscle mass

A lack of protein in the diet can lead to loss of muscle over time. When the food we eat is deficient in protein, our body takes the proteins from the skeletal muscles, which can lead to muscle loss. Muscle loss can lead to low strength, which makes it harder to keep your balance and slows your metabolism.

According to a study from the Department of Food and Nutrition, Purdue University, West Lafayette, loss of muscle mass was the highest in the group of older men and women that took the lowest quantities of protein (4). Protein is vital for building new muscle mass. If your diet does not contain enough protein to support tissue repair, you will not see results even if you work out more.

3. Decreased liver functioning

Very little protein in the diet can have a damaging impact on the liver. According to research, a low protein diet can lead to a 20 percent reduction in albumin, a protein produced by the liver, which also helps in its function. According to researchers from the School of Veterinary Medicine at the University of Surrey, a low protein diet reduced the volume of liver cells by 46 percent and increased the total number of cells with two nuclei by 90 percent, which caused a decrease in functionality of the liver.

Children with Kwashiorkor can also develop of fatty liver. According to studies, impaired synthesis of fat –transporting lipoproteins can lead to fatty liver (5).

4. Hair, nail and skin problems

Our hair, skin, and nails are made up of proteins like elastin, collagen, and keratin. When our body is unable to make these proteins, you can have thinning hair, brittle nails with ridges on them and dry and flaky skin (6). According to research by the American Academy of Dermatology, when there is a low intake of protein in the body, it directs the scarce protein to where it is needed the most, and this can result in hair loss.

5. Slow-healing injuries

People with protein deficiency often find that their wounds take longer to heal. This slow down in the healing process may be due to reduced collagen formation (7). Collagen is found in connective tissues as well as the skin. Our body also needs proteins to make the blood clot.

6. Increased bone fractures

Having a protein-rich diet plays an essential role in resilient bones. We need protein for calcium absorption and bone metabolism. If we do not consume enough proteins, our body borrows proteins from the skeletal muscle tissue. When the skeletal muscle becomes weak, it can make you more prone to injuries (8).

Research by the Department of Nutrition and Food Sciences, Utah State University, Logan, studied the role of dietary protein in osteoporosis. The results of this study showed that the intake of dietary protein, especially from animal sources, is associated with a reduced incidence of hip fractures in postmenopausal women (9).

7. Low immunity

If you are falling sick more often than usual, it may be a sign of protein deficiency. Studies show that our immune system does not work well when we are low on the protein (10). The amino acids in our blood help the immune system in making antibodies, which activate the white blood cells that fight off viruses, bacteria, and toxins.

Even a marginal loss in protein intake can lower the immunity. A study from USDA Human Nutrition Research Center on Aging at Tufts University, Boston, showed that when older women were fed a low protein diet for nine weeks, it lowered their immune response (11).

8. Increased appetite

If you feel hungry in spite of eating regular meals, you may be deficient in proteins. According to a study from Australia, inadequate protein in the diet can lead to an increase in appetite, so that can eat protein-rich food (12). Another study from Division of Human Nutrition, Wageningen University, Netherlands, shows that protein deficiency increases people’s appetite for savory foods, which are generally high in proteins.

Unfortunately, ready-to-eat savory foods are also high in calories, which can lead to weight gain. Eating protein-rich foods can help you stay fuller and hence help in weight loss.

9. Stunted growth in children

Not only is protein essential for maintaining bone and muscles, but it is also vital for body growth. Inadequate intake of protein in children can lead to stunted growth. Several studies show that there is a strong association between protein intake and growth (13, 14). Stunted growth is also evident in children with Kwashiorkor (15).

10. Anxiety and low energy

If you feel lack of energy, moody and anxious, you may have a protein deficiency. Studies show that a high-protein diet helps to support a more stable mood. The amino acids are the building blocks of neurotransmitters, which help to control our mood. Proteins also contribute to synthesizing hormones like dopamine and serotonin, that provide feelings of calm and positivity.

11. Insomnia

People with protein deficiency have difficulty in sleeping. Lack of specific amino acids in the body can lead to a deficiency in serotonin. These amino acids are produced when proteins are broken down. So, if you have a diet that is low in proteins, you may have difficulty sleeping.

12. Poor concentration

A diet low in protein can also lead to poor concentration, lack of motivation, and trouble in learning new information. Our body needs neurotransmitters like dopamine, epinephrine, norepinephrine, and serotonin to support various aspects of neurological functioning.

Amino acids synthesize neurotransmitters in the brain. Diets that are rich in protein can boost work performance, learning, and concentration.

How much protein do we need?

The amount of protein a person needs can vary according to their age, weight, gender, and level of activity. According to USDA, an adult male with average weight and activity level should eat 56 grams of protein per day, while a female should consume 46 grams of protein per day. This amounts to .36 grams of protein for every pound of your weight. Pregnant women, active people, or those who are unwell need to add more proteins to their diet. According to experts, you should consume around 20 to 30 percent of your calories from proteins.


Best sources of protein

You must eat the right proteins for it to have a good impact on health. Some good sources of dietary protein include –

  • Lean meat, poultry, and fish
  • Eggs
  • Dairy products like milk, yogurt, and cheese
  • Seeds and nuts
  • Beans and legumes
  • Soy products like tofu

Final thoughts

Proteins are made up of long-chain amino acids, which are the building blocks of muscle. They give us energy, help us recover from injuries, and keep us satiated. Although protein deficiency is very rare in the US, people with anorexia, cancer, Crohn’s disease, and in some cases, vegans can develop a protein deficiency.

Protein deficiency symptoms include swelling, loss of muscle mass, decreased liver functioning, hair, nail, and skin problems, slow-healing injuries, increased bone fracture, low immunity, increased appetite, stunted growth, anxiety, insomnia, and poor concentration.


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