7 Signs Of Protein Deficiency Plus 10 Naturally Protein-Rich Foods

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ProteinInfographic © herbshealthhappiness.com. Image sources: see foot of page

Proteins play a big role in the body’s metabolism. They are often called the body’s “building blocks” because they are responsible for the creation and repair of cells and tissues. While protein plays a vital part in everyone’s diet, they have a very important role in diets of growing children, teenagers, and pregnant mothers.

People who do not have enough protein in their diet experience muscle wasting or “kwashiorkor” – a condition where the weight loss is not merely a loss of fat, but a loss of connective tissue a.k.a. muscles. [1]

Here are a list of 7 (sometimes surprising) symptoms typically exhibited by those who do not have enough protein in their diet:

1. Apathy and irritability: One of the signs of protein deficiency is a change in neurological status. People appear moody and easily irritable, eventually leading to apathy or a lack of emotional response to external stimuli. This can be attributed to slowed neurological responses because of poorly developed nerves – an effect of protein deficiency. Low energy levels – manifesting as lethargy and drowsiness – can also lead to mood swings and easy irritability. [2][3]

2. Stunted growth and development: Because protein is responsible for building and repair cells, inadequate intake causes delays in physical growth. Children don’t grow as tall as they would have, had they had enough protein in their diet. Babies born to mothers who do not eat enough protein are smaller in size, becoming more prone to sickness. This is because nutritional inadequacy, particularly protein, stunts the development of bones and muscles, which leads to smaller and weaker statures. [4]

3. Edema or swelling of the lower extremities and abdomen: Swelling caused by protein deficiency is due to a build-up of fluid in the affected areas, typically your feet, legs, and abdomen. This happens because protein – specifically a protein called albumin – plays a role in keeping fluid inside our blood vessels through hydrostatic and oncotic pressure. When there isn’t enough protein the body, it disrupts the balance or pressure between inside the capillary blood vessels and out of it – causing a leak into interstitial space. This leads to edema or swelling. [5]

4. Diarrhea: Diarrhea is a common symptom of protein deficiency, which contributes to increasing mortality of the condition. The absence of protein in the body causes imbalances in the ions in the body responsible for maintaining gastrointestinal homeostasis – leading to diarrhea. Studies have shown a direct correlation between protein deficiency and acute diarrhea, as well as resulting electrolyte imbalances that contribute to changes in sensorium and fatal hypokalemia and metabolic acidosis. [6]

5. Easy fatiguability: Losing energy typically falls under the signs and symptoms of caloric malnutrition, but iS also apparent in people suffering from protein deficiency. A study observed children who suffered from kwashiorkor were observed to be lethargic, exhibiting symptoms of drowsiness. Children suffering from severe cases of kwashiorkor were in a hepatic coma. [3]

6. Dry, flaky skin: Kwashiorkor has pronounced dermatologic or cutaneous changes in the body, primarily because protein is a major component of our hair, skin, and nails. The most pronounced symptom is xerosis, or severely dry and flaking skin, and hair that is red to gray-white in color (“flag sign”). Severe cases of kwashiorkor even manifest skin lesions or erosions, due to the poor turgor and elasticity of the skin. [7]

7. Fatty liver: Protein deficiency’s effects on the liver have been consistently found in studies through the years. One of the earlier studies was published in 1992, showing how a child suffering from kwashiorkor exhibited liver steatosis or infiltration of the liver cells with fat, hence the “fatty liver”. This can be attributed to a decrease in fat metabolism and mobilization in the liver in the absence of adequate protein in the diet. [8]

10 Naturally Rich Protein Foods

To avoid experiencing any of these symptoms, you could include these foods in your diet! The protein content figures shown below come from the US Department of Agriculture (USDA).

#1: Oats Oats are a favorite breakfast item because of their low caloric and high fiber content. They also have significant amounts of protein to jumpstart your day.

Protein content per 100 grams: 17 grams

#2: Sunflower seeds. Instead of your typical fare of chips and candy, why not try a handful of sunflower seeds instead? They can be found in some snack sections of local grocery shops, ready to eat.

Protein content per 100 grams: 21 grams

#3: Fish. If you want a healthy alternative to beef and pork for protein, go for fish! Fish is low in fat and preservatives (for the most part, though antibiotics in fish farming is still a big issue). The fish with the highest protein content is the yellow-tail and the one with the lowest is flatfish (like flounder and sole).

Protein content per 100 grams of yellow-tail: 43.32 g
Protein content per 100 grams of flat fish: 3.52 g

#4: Eggs. Eggs, particularly their egg whites, are an excellent source of protein – which is why some athletes like to “drink” raw egg white at the start of the day to help in the development of muscles (important during exercise and physical training).

Protein content per 100 grams: 13 g
Protein content per 100 grams of egg white: 11 g

#5: Walnuts. Nuts are another way to get a lot of protein in your diet. Their fat content shouldn’t deter you from having them as a snack because this kind of fat is highly bioavailable, meaning they are easy for the body to metabolize.

Protein content per 100 grams: 15 g

#6: Sweet potatoes. Sweet potatoes are a good alternative to bread and rice because they take longer to digest, meaning you stay full longer – something to consider if you suffer from high blood sugar or diabetes.

Protein content per 100 grams: 1.6 g

#7: Cheese. The milk content found in cheese is a big contributor to its high protein content, and although it is high in preservatives like sodium, having cheese in a sandwich or as a topping for pasta is still a better alternative to “junk food”.

Protein content per 100 grams: 25 g

#8: Kidney beans. You might balk at the idea of kidney beans but they are one of the highest protein containing foods on this list (just second to cheese, actually!). They are great in fresh salads or even in a stir-fry.

Protein content per 100 grams: 24 g

#9: Almonds. Another nut that is worth mentioning is almonds! Almonds are crunchy and are easier to find as a snack item compared to walnuts.

Protein content per 100 grams: 24 g

#10: Lentils. Lentils are easy to add to your breakfast, lunch, or dinner as a side-dish, upping your protein intake each time you prepare a meal.

Protein content per 100 grams: 9 g


[1] National Institutes of Health. Protein in diet. https://www.nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus/ency/article/002467.htm

[2] Bradley, W., et. al. (2004). Neurology in Clinical Practice: The neurological disorders. https://books.google.com.ph/books?id=l9wtYZ_iCCIC&dq=neurologic+symptoms+in+kwashiorkor&source=gbs_navlinks_s

[3] Udani, P., (1960). Neurological manifestations in kwashiorkor. https://www.cabdirect.org/cabdirect/abstract/19611401079

[4] Gat-Yablonski, G. & Phillip, M. (2015). Nutritionally-Induced Catch-Up Growth. https://ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4303852/

[5] Coulthard, M. (2015). Oedema in kwashiorkor is caused by hypoalbuminaemia. https://ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4462841/

[6] Akhter, S., et. al. (2014). Effect of Protein Energy Malnutrition on the Diarrheal Electrolyte Imbalance in Children of Chittagong Region, Bangladesh. https://opensciencepublications.com/fulltextarticles/IJN-2395-2326-1-101.html

[7] Mann, D., et. al. (2011). Cutaneous manifestations of kwashiorkor: a case report of an adult man after abdominal surgery. https://scielo.br/scielo.php?script=sci_arttext&pid=S0365-05962011000600017&lng=en&nrm=iso&tlng=en

[8] Doherty, J. (1992). Ultrasonographic assessment of the extent of hepatic steatosis in severe malnutrition. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/1471885

Infographic Image Sources:

Amino Acids – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Protein_%28nutrient%29
Oats – https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Haferflocken.jpg
Sunflower Seeds – https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Sonnenblumenkerne_sunflower_seeds.jpg
Fish – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Halibut_and_salmon_fillets.jpg
Eggs – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:6-Pack-Chicken-Eggs.jpg
Walnuts – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:3_walnuts.jpg
Sweet Potatoes – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Ipomoea_batatas_006.JPG
Cheese – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Emmentaler.jpg
Kidney Beans – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Kidney_beans.jpg
Almonds – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Blanched_almonds.jpg
Lentils – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:3_types_of_lentil.jpg

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