Will a Lack of Protein Kill You?

A lack of protein can weaken your immune system.

A lack of protein can weaken your immune system.

In a perfect world, your diet would have the right balance of three nutrient types: carbohydrates, proteins and fats. But if you are skipping the protein, you could experience some dangerous consequences. A severe case of protein deficiency known as kwashiorkor can be deadly, but you can take steps to prevent this from occurring. By getting enough protein each day, you can keep your muscles and immune system stronger and healthier.

Protein’s Role

Every cell, tissue and organ in your body has some amount of protein in it. Because your body is constantly growing and repairing tissues and cells, it needs protein for this new growth. Without enough protein, your body will not have what it needs to maintain proper growth. You may start to notice your hair changing in color or texture, your skin pigmentation changing and your muscles starting to shrink.

Kwashiorkor

Kwashiorkor is the medical term for the dangerous lack of dietary protein that can lead to life-threatening symptoms. It is more likely to develop in someone whose diet is high in starchy foods, such as grains, potatoes and plantains, and very low in protein. Young adult women like you don't typically suffer from kwashiorkor -- children in developing countries and the elderly are more likely to have this condition. But just because you aren’t likely to develop it doesn’t mean you can’t suffer from the side effects of low protein.

Complications

Not getting enough protein in your daily diet can lead to side effects that may start with a lack of energy, fatigue and skin changes and eventually worsen. This includes an impaired immune system, which means you get more infections and feel sicker more often. Your body may also start to swell. If left untreated, severe lack of protein can lead to coma, shock and permanent physical and mental disabilities. Each of these could turn deadly. Also, if you had difficulties with protein nutrition early in life, you are more likely to have life-threatening conditions, such as cirrhosis of the liver. The moral of the story is: Don’t skip out on protein as it is a vital part of your daily diet.

Protein Recommendations

As many as 50 percent of women ages 18 to 50 aren’t sure if they get enough protein, according to “Health” magazine. If you’re one of them, you may need to keep a closer watch on your protein intake. Most women need about 50 to 60 grams of protein per day, which can come from a variety of sources. “Complete” proteins are those that contain all essential amino acids or protein building blocks. Essential amino acids are those your body cannot make on its own and thus must acquire from foods. Complete proteins typically come from animal sources, for example, meat, fish, eggs and dairy products. Soybeans are a plant-based protein source that is complete. Incomplete protein sources, which do not have all the essential amino acids, can nonetheless contribute to your total protein intake. These include fruits, vegetables and whole grains. If you’re still having a hard time getting enough protein in your diet, consider incorporating protein powder into shakes, oatmeal, yogurt or cereal.

 

About the Author

Rachel Nall began writing in 2003. She is a former managing editor for custom health publications, including physician journals. She has written for The Associated Press and "Jezebel," "Charleston," "Chatter" and "Reach" magazines. Nall is currently pursuing her Bachelor of Science in Nursing at the University of Tennessee.

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