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January 17, 2023
Not Getting Enough Protein? You May be at Risk for These 7 Health Issues
It’s no secret that here at NativePath we’re big believers in a high-protein diet. Not only is this macronutrient an essential building block of bone, muscle, cartilage, skin, hair, and nails. It’s also key to maintaining muscle mass, a healthy weight, digestion, cellular repair, and hormone regulation (1, 2).
However, billions of people aren’t getting enough protein. If that’s you, you may have something called hypoproteinemia—a condition in which you have lower-than-normal protein levels in your blood. And because your body doesn’t store protein, you need to eat it every day.
If you aren’t getting enough protein, you may experience issues like muscle loss, a weak immune system, a weakened heart and lungs, and an overall lower quality of life. If you’re an older adult, hypoproteinemia can make you feel weaker or more “frail”, and if you have osteoporosis, it can increase your risk of fractures (3, 4).
Protein deficiency varies in its severity and its symptoms. Many cases in the US are on the more mild end, but hypoproteinemia is a global issue with far-reaching effects. It’s estimated that around one billion people on the planet aren’t getting enough protein; and in Central Africa and South Asia, as many as 30% of children aren’t getting enough (5, 6).
In this article, we’ll cover the symptoms, causes, and risks of hypoproteinemia, as well as how to treat it.
Symptoms of Hypoproteinemia
Depending on the severity of your protein deficiency, symptoms of hypoproteinemia can include:
- Recurring Infections
- Loss of Muscle Mass
- Thin, Breakable Hair
- Hair Loss
- Dry Skin
- Cracked, Pitted, and Brittle Nails
- Changes in Mood
- Swelling in the Face, Legs, and Other Body Parts
- Craving Foods Rich in Protein
- A Lack of Growth in Children
Causes of Hypoproteinemia
Each case of protein deficiency has its own set of reasons. Here are a few common causes…
Your body is struggling to absorb protein.
Some people experience malabsorption, a condition in which the body can’t absorb the protein content of food. This can stem from existing health conditions like celiac disease, Crohn’s disease, inflammatory bowel disease, pancreas issues, intestinal issues, parasites, infections, and surgery.
You’re not getting enough protein in your diet.
A lack of protein in your diet can happen for a few reasons…
- Protein-rich foods aren’t in your budget.
- You’re experiencing an eating disorder.
- You’re following a restrictive diet.
- You have dementia.
- You have food aversions that impact your protein intake.
Hypoproteinemia can also be an issue during pregnancy, as moms-to-be need more protein than usual to stay healthy. This can be extra tough for women who are dealing with severe nausea and vomiting during their pregnancy (7).
If your kidneys aren’t working like they’re supposed to, protein may leak out of your blood (where it’s supposed to be) and instead go into your urine.
The liver generates albumin, a protein that makes up around 60% of the protein in your bloodstream. If your liver is damaged, it might have trouble making the albumin you need.
Risks of Hypoproteinemia
Not getting enough protein can put you at risk for a wide range of health impacts over time. Some risks only occur when your case is severe, but others can show up even when your protein deficiency is relatively small.
Protein is integral to bone health, including preserving bone density and preventing osteoporosis (8). That’s one of the reasons we recommend daily collagen to people who are worried about their bone density. If you’re not getting enough protein, your bones can become fragile, your muscles can get weaker, and your balance can get flimsier. This means a higher risk of fractures and falls (9, 10, 11, 12, 13).
Loss of Muscle Mass
Your muscles rely on protein to function. When you’re not getting enough, your muscles may start to waste. This can happen even if your hypoproteinemia isn’t a severe case, especially if you’re older (14). In fact, increased protein intake could actually help slow down the natural muscle degeneration process that comes with age (15).
Severe protein deficiency usually zaps a person’s appetite. But if you have more mild hypoproteinemia, odds are high that your body is ramping up your appetite to encourage you to eat more protein (16). This can cause cravings for savory foods in particular (17). Unfortunately, this can mean reaching for foods that are low in nutrients (and still low in protein!) that simply add to your daily calorie count and cause weight gain without making you any healthier (18).
Weaker Immune System
Changes in Hair, Skin, and Nails
Hypoproteinemia, especially in its more severe forms, can cause thinning hair, faded hair color, and alopecia (hair loss) (22, 23). You may also experience weak, brittle nails and dry, red, or flaky skin (24, 25).
The most severe form of protein deficiency is a type of malnutrition called kwashiorkor. If you are reading this article, you probably won’t see kwashiorkor in your everyday life—it’s usually seen in places where people are experiencing famine and food shortages. That said, a common result of kwashiorkor is fatty liver, which can develop into fatty liver disease if left untreated (26, 27).
Edema is another common symptom of kwashiorkor. Experts believe this probably happens because the body is experiencing low levels of albumin, the type of protein that’s ordinarily produced by the liver (28). Edema caused by protein deficiency can include swollen skin and bloating or fluid build-up in the stomach.
How to Treat Hypoproteinemia
One of the most direct ways to treat hypoproteinemia is by eating more protein! You can load up on eggs, poultry, fish, grass-fed beef, beans, nuts, collagen powder, and certain types of dairy like milk and Greek yogurt.
Doctors may also suggest treatments for any conditions that are causing or contributing to a person’s hypoproteinemia. This could mean antibiotics for infections, vitamins for nutritional deficiencies, medications to manage intestinal inflammation, kidney disease treatment, or interventions for liver damage.
The Bottom Line
Protein deficiency is shockingly common, and mild-to-moderate cases can sneak up on you without you even realizing it. It’s especially important to be aware of your protein intake as you get older—you’ll need more of it to stay healthy and fit. Hypoproteinemia can have a stark impact on your muscle health, bone health, osteoporosis prognosis, or even how often you come down with the flu. Make sure you’re getting enough protein intake from your daily diet and supplement routine.
As a writer, editor, and wellness seeker, Claire has written for Self, Health, Prevention, CNN, Mic, Livestrong, and Greatist, just to name a few. When she's not writing, she specializes in traveling, getting lost in health-related research rabbit holes, and finding new ways to spoil her cat.
This content is for informational and educational purposes only. It is not intended to provide medical advice or to take the place of such advice or treatment from a personal physician. All readers/viewers of this content are advised to consult their doctors or qualified health professionals regarding specific health questions. Neither Dr. Chad Walding nor the publisher of this content takes responsibility for possible health consequences of any person or persons reading or following the information in this educational content. All viewers of this content, especially those taking prescription or over-the-counter medications, should consult their physicians before beginning any nutrition, supplement, or lifestyle program.