Health effects of an inadequate protein Intake
Proteins are essential for life. A decreased protein intake over a long period results in many abnormalities which, however, are different at various age groups. It has been proved that irreversible damage to brain cells occurs in children who not get sufficient protein during infancy. Protein deficiency in children also leads to a stunted physical growth and increased mortality rate; thus 2-years old children in Pakistan are on average equal in weight to one-year old European children and the child mortality in Pakistan is one of the highest in the World, about 80 times that of Swedish children and 40 times that of Japanese children. Of the adults it is the expectant and nursing women who are most likely to suffer from protein deficiency.
The effect produced by deficiency of proteins in young children and adults are discussed below separately.
Health Issues in Young Children
Severe deficiency of good quality protein in young children produces the condition known as Kwashiorkor which means golden boy in the language of Gold Coast (now Ghana), Africa. This condition occurs only in tropics and subtropics where diet of young children lacks animal protein although it supplies enough calories. Characteristically, it affects children after they are weaned usually because another child is expected. Weaning results in a cessation of the supply of milk which hitherto had been the main sources of good quality proteins to the child. Khwashiorkor is thus a disease of the deposed baby. The diet of such children usually consists of high starch foods such as bananas, potatoes, maize and cassava. The protein being of vegetables sources are of a low biological value and are usually in lesser amount as well, i.e. vitamin and mineral. The clinical features of Kwashiorkor are given below.
- Growth failure, atrophy of muscles, weakness and nervous irritability
- Skin rash in various sites: The skin first becomes red; later the superficial layers are desquamated leaving behind raw surface which looks pink. The hair become grey or red.
- Cheilosis, xerophthalmia, stomatitis, diarrhea and cachexia
- Edema occurs and may mask the actual extent of wasting. The child looks well-fed with a large abdomen. The liver shows fatty changes.
- Increased vulnerability to infections
- Rickets and scurvy may also co-exist.
Kwashiorkor is treated by giving proteins of a good quality.
Health Issues in Adults
When an adult individual is given a diet low in protein, the loss of proteins from different body organs continues though at a different rate. The liver loses protein rapidly and extensively so that in a few days it may have lost 25% of its substance; this is accompanied by an impairment of liver functions. Prolonged protein deficiency can cause necrosis of liver cells. Other organs also show loss of their substance. Plasma proteins especially albumin are decreased and edema results if the hypoproteinemia is severe. Antibody formation also suffers and thus resistance to infection is decreased. Such people also show a loss of initiative, lethargy and a decreased productivity. Profound changes in endocrine functions such as extreme hypofunction of gonads, adrenal hypoactivity and thyroid atrophy are observed. No morphological changes in the pituitary glands are however seen.