Protein Deficiency: Look Out For These 8 Signs & How You Can Fix It

Proteins are the building blocks of life: it makes up our body cells, hormones, enzymes, skin, hair, and body tissues. They also transport vitamins and minerals throughout the body and boost our immune system. Some of the main functions of protein include maintaining muscle fibers, gaining strength, hormone production, and immune function. Whether you’re a male, female, an athlete, or a nine-to-five worker, your body requires protein to function daily. 

The Recommended Dietary Allowance (RDA) for any average person is 0.8 - 1.0 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight. So a person that weighs 80 kilograms (176 lbs) should be eating around 70-80 grams of protein, however, these numbers will vary based on several factors such as gender, age, and activity levels.  

The idea of a standard western diet has drastically changed as obesity rates have skyrocketed over the past couple of decades due to fast food consumption. What used to be a barometer of a healthy lifestyle has now turned into a diet consisting of high calories, sugar, fats, and sodium. While fast foods have become more readily available and cheaper, the cost of organic foods like meats, fruits, vegetables, and grains has gone up drastically. 

Consequently, the lack of quality protein in the standard western diet has become more apparent. Yes, even junk foods can provide adequate amounts of protein and even fulfill dietary requirements, however, it is not always about the quantity. You can still be deficient in protein due to a lack of certain essential amino acids. Serious protein deficiency can cause loss of muscle mass, stunt growth in children, and increase risks of infection among others.  In this article, we will look at the potential markers of protein deficiency and how to overcome it. 

What is Protein Deficiency?

Proteins are made up of thousands of smaller units called amino acids attached together in long chains. There are in total of 20 amino acids, a mix of essential and non-essential which combine with one another to make up a protein. These 20 amino acids are vital to the human body and are responsible for numerous chemical and biological reactions.

Protein Deficiency, also known as hypoproteinemia, is a condition in which a person’s lack of protein intake causes them to have low levels of essential amino acids in the blood. A severe form of protein malnutrition is called Kwashiorkor, a condition most common in babies and children in developing regions of the world. Common symptoms of Kwashiorkor include fluid buildup in the body tissues, enlarged liver, and edema (swelling under the skin). 

Protein Deficiency was seen mostly in older adults in the US according to data from the 2005-2014 National Health & Nutrition Examination Survey. Their analysis found that up to 46 percent of the oldest participants in the study did not consume enough protein on a regular basis. 

Here are 8 signs that might indicate protein deficiency

Muscle Mass Loss 

Losing muscle mass is one of the primary indicators of protein deficiency. It simply means that you are losing your muscle because your protein intake is too low. When the muscle loss gets severe, the condition is called muscle-wasting and is far more prominent in the elderly. Increased protein intake is the most efficient way for everyone to slow down muscle degeneration. 

Fatty Liver 

A fatty liver is a common symptom of Kwashiorkor, a severe form of protein deficiency that takes place due to an accumulation of fats by the cells of the liver. Fatty livers are usually found in obese people and frequent alcohol consumers. 

However, protein deficiency results in a decrease in lipoproteins, which are fat-transporting proteins. Due to the lack of lipoproteins, fat tends to accumulate in the liver cells, causing the organ to bloat. 

Increased Risk of Bone Fractures

Bones consist of a protein known as collagen. They make the bones strong and provide structure. Thus, protein deficiency can cause your bones to weaken and can increase the risk of fracture. 

Studies have shown that decreased protein intake as you age can result in loss of bone density and fractures. Hip fractures from a fall are the most prominent kind when it comes to older adults who are protein deficient. 

Problems in Skin, Hair, and Nails

The skin, hair, and nails are primarily made up of proteins, hence, severe protein deficiency can result in damage to these parts. The skin might redden, become flaky, and start to blister. 

While the nails can become brittle, protein deficiency can also cause the hair to thin, lose color, and even fall off the scalp. Kwashiorkor in children is typically identified by checking the condition of the skin, hair, and nails. 

Slower Clotting System & Longer-lasting Infections

Protein deficiency also slows down the body’s clotting mechanisms and hinder the immune system. Cuts and bruises might take much longer to heal than usual due to the slowing down of the inflammatory immune response. 

As a result of a weak immune system,  our bodies will be prone to infections such as the common cold and flu, taking longer than usual to get rid of them. On top of adding more protein to your diet, a healthy meal with a balance of carbohydrates, fats, and other micronutrients will go a long way to  boost the immune system and avoid the symptoms of protein deficiency. 

High Cholesterol 

High levels of cholesterol is another indicator that you might be protein deficient. The feeling of extreme hunger typically leads to people indulging in savory and carb-heavy and fatty foods like burgers, pizzas, donuts, and sugary drinks. As a result of this, cholesterol levels spike up and the liver has to go on overdrive to process all the fats. 

This is where protein might help! Getting a high-protein meal in the morning is an effective way to feel full and avoid cravings between meals. According to studies on food and satiety, a high-protein breakfast is more effective than a high-carb breakfast at reducing ghrelin levels, a hormone that stimulates hunger.


is swelling caused by the leakage of fluids from blood vessels into the tissue that surrounds them. This usually happens if the blood lacks albumin, a protein that is responsible for maintaining oncotic pressure. Oncotic pressure maintains blood flow in the blood vessels. 

The blood vessels cannot regulate if the blood flow is short on albumin, which results in fluid leakage and inflammation of the surrounding tissues. Ultimately, this causes the area to swell. 

Risk Factors of Protein Deficiency

In principle, if you’re not consuming enough protein and meeting your Recommended Daily Allowance, you are at risk of protein deficiency. You may begin to notice a deterioration in your overall health through symptoms such as weakness, increased hunger, and fatigue.

Other important risk factors include being on a vegan and vegetarian diet. These diets exclude the most common source of protein which is meat and dairy. Additionally, a downside is that finding replacements for the protein sources in these diets might be challenging and not affordable to everyone. So unless you’re fulfilling your RDA with tons of non-animal protein sources such as beans, lentils, tofu, and nuts, the risk of developing a protein deficiency is high. 

Being active and exercising frequently can also put you at risk for protein deficiency. Yes, weight training and cardio are extremely beneficial for the body, however, if your protein intake is low, being active can be a risk factor. Consuming protein before or after an intense workout is necessary to repair the wear and tear of the body and rebuild muscle fibers. Matter of fact, those who do weight training frequently should be doubling their recommended daily allowance of protein intake.  

Lastly, overconsumption of alcohol is a huge risk factor for protein deficiency. Research indicates that alcohol impairs the liver’s function of synthesizing protein by about 40%. Breaking down protein into amino acids by the liver is an essential step of protein synthesis. When you drink, the liver takes a hit because it takes twice as much time and works for it to break down the alcohol. Along with that, it also inhibits the absorption of nutrients such as vitamin B1 involved in protein metabolism. 


Protein deficiency is a marker of poor diet and health choices. For average adults, the solution is pretty simple: add more protein sources to your diet whether it's meat, dairy products, or protein supplements. 

The signs of protein deficiency are most commonly seen in older demographics across the world. A research study at Ohio State University found that “up to 46 percent of the oldest participants aged 51 and above in the study did not consume enough protein on a regular basis”. The reason behind this could be that as we age, we lose our appetite and have lower energy needs. 

Even though far fewer adults in developed countries are unlikely to be deficient in protein, there are tons of risk factors like alcohol consumption that can hinder the process of synthesizing protein and eventually cause protein deficiency. At the end of the day, it always comes down to a balanced diet and a healthy lifestyle that can ultimately set us free from being protein deficient.