Hypoproteinemia is a condition in which a person has very low levels of protein in the blood.

Proteins are essential to every part of the human body. Bones, muscles, skin, and nearly every vital organ or tissue contain them.

The body needs protein to function and survive and must get it through food. However, the body cannot store protein long term for future use, so people need to consume enough protein every day to ensure the body gets enough to work correctly.

Hypoproteinemia is uncommon in developed countries where most people eat a well-balanced diet. However, people who have certain health conditions or diets lacking in protein may develop the condition.

In this article, we explain the symptoms, causes, and treatments for hypoproteinemia, as well as how to manage protein intake.

a woman experience weakness in her neck because of hypoproteinemia
A person with hypoproteinemia may experience weakness and fatigue.

The symptoms of hypoproteinemia vary and can range from mild to severe. They include:

  • fatigue and weakness
  • recurrent viral or bacterial infections
  • thinning, breaking hair
  • hair that falls out
  • brittle nails and dry skin
  • mood changes and irritability
  • cravings for protein-rich foods

These symptoms can also be signs of other health problems, such as iron deficiency anemia or problems with the immune system. It is only possible to identify hypoproteinemia through medical tests.

Here, learn about the functions of protein in the body and why it is so important.

Health conditions that affect digestion or the absorption and use of proteins from food are often the cause of hypoproteinemia.

Limiting food intake or following highly restrictive diets can also lead to a shortage of protein in the body.

Malnutrition and undereating

Hypoproteinemia can relate directly to a person’s diet, especially if a person does not eat enough calories or avoids certain food groups.

Diet-related hypoproteinemia may occur in the following instances:

  • If a person has inadequate income to buy food and does not consume enough calories from protein.
  • During pregnancy, as women need much more protein than normal for the development of a fetus. Those who are unable to eat enough calories from sources of protein due to extreme nausea and vomiting have a high risk of hypoproteinemia.
  • A person has an eating disorder, such as anorexia nervosa and bulimia nervosa. These often result in a diet that does not provide enough protein.
  • Individuals who follow a restrictive diet, such as one that eliminates nearly all sources of plant and animal proteins, may be at risk of hypoproteinemia.

Liver disorders

The liver plays a key role in processing proteins in the body.

If the liver is not functioning fully, the body may not be able to get enough protein to carry out its vital functions. This can occur in people with a variety of liver disorders, including hepatitis or cirrhosis.

Kidney problems

The kidneys help filter waste products from the blood into the urine. When functioning correctly, the kidneys allow protein to stay in the bloodstream.

However, when the kidneys are damaged or are not functioning fully, they may leak protein into the urine.

This may occur in people who have hypertension (high blood pressure), diabetes, and certain kidney diseases. As a result, a person may have a combination of hypoproteinemia and proteinuria, (protein in the urine).

Celiac disease

Celiac disease is an autoimmune disease in which the immune system mistakenly attacks the body’s cells in the small intestine.

This reaction occurs when a person eats foods that contain gluten, a protein that occurs in wheat, rye, and barley.

Autoimmune damage to the small intestine can lead to the reduced absorption of many nutrients, including protein.

Inflammatory bowel disease

Some forms of inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) cause inflammation in the small intestine. This is where the body breaks down many essential nutrients and absorbs them.

Damage to the small intestine can lead to different nutrient deficiencies, including hypoproteinemia.

A blood test can reveal whether a person has enough protein in the body.

A doctor can perform a set of blood tests known as a total protein, albumin, and albumin/globulin (A/G) ratio. Albumin and globulin are two proteins that the liver produces.

This test can reveal whether total protein levels are low and if albumin and globulin proteins are at optimal levels.

If these two proteins are out of balance, it may signal a medical problem, such as a liver disorder, kidney disease, or autoimmune condition.

A doctor will tailor treatment directly to the cause of the low protein. Treatment can also vary depending on a person’s diet, health status, age, and medical history.

A doctor may need to carry out a thorough medical history, physical examination, and diagnostic tests to determine the cause of hypoproteinemia. A doctor will devise a treatment plan after identifying the cause.

Examples of treatments include:

  • A person with an eating disorder may need to receive treatment for it, which may include psychotherapy. Afterward, they can work toward maintaining a healthful, balanced diet that includes enough protein.
  • An individual with celiac disease will need to follow a gluten-free diet. This will improve the small intestine’s absorption of nutrients, including protein.
  • Liver and kidney disorders often require extensive medical treatment and further monitoring, with regular follow-ups by a doctor.
  • Pregnant women with extreme nausea and vomiting may need treatment to alleviate their symptoms. This can help them consume enough calories and protein for their baby’s healthy development.

Eating a balanced diet that includes high protein foods will enable most people to get the protein they need.

The 2015–2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans state that, on average, most people in the United States are within the recommended range of total protein intake, based on results from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES) from 2007–2010.

In most cases, being slightly below the daily protein requirement for a short time will not cause lasting or severe hypoproteinemia.

The recommended daily allowance (RDA) of protein is 0.8 grams (g) per kilogram or 0.36 g per pound of body weight per day.

To calculate how much protein a person needs each day, they can multiply their body weight in pounds by 0.36.

At least 10% of daily calories should be from protein. People who are highly active, pregnant, or are trying to build muscle mass may need more than these recommended amounts.

Proteins are made up of amino acids, which are the building blocks of tissues. The body needs many different amino acids to fulfill its various functions.

Animal proteins offer “complete” proteins. Examples include meat, fish, eggs, and poultry. Soy, a plant-based protein, is also a source of complete protein.

These foods contain all the essential amino acids the body needs.

Plant proteins

Many plant-based proteins, including nuts, seeds, and beans, offer only some of the necessary essential amino acids.

People who follow a vegetarian or vegan diet should ensure they are getting all the amino acids they need by eating a variety of healthful, plant-based protein foods each day.

Read about the 15 best plant sources for protein.

Animal proteins

Although animal proteins contain all the essential amino acids in adequate proportions, many of them can adversely impact health. For example, red meat often contains high amounts of saturated fat and calories.

Fish may contain mercury or other contaminants, so children or pregnant women should avoid fish that are high in mercury.

In general, eating moderate amounts of lean meat, poultry, and fish is the most effective way to consume a variety of complete proteins.

Which is best?

Consuming a variety of proteins from animal and plant sources is usually the best way to avoid developing hypoproteinemia. Although most plant-based foods are not complete proteins, they offer fiber, vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants that help fight disease.

Rather than focussing on any one type of protein, consuming a varied diet is the best way to good health.

Hypoproteinemia often requires medical care due to its variety of complicated causes.

The long term outlook depends upon the cause of protein deficiency.

It is possible to treat and cure hypoproteinemia as long as a person receives the correct medical treatment and eats a balanced diet that includes sufficient protein from varied sources.

Q:

Which meats contain the most protein but have the most healthful overall nutrition profile?

A:

All of the meats, such as chicken, beef, pork, and lamb, as well as fish, contain enough protein for a person to consume the recommended daily protein intake. Beef and chicken usually have higher amounts of protein in them.

According to the American Heart Association, chicken and fish are the healthiest choices because red meats, such as beef, pork, and lamb contain more saturated fat, which can raise cholesterol and worsen heart disease.

It’s good to pick lean cuts of meat and trim off excess fat before cooking. Try to avoid processed meats, such as bacon, salami, sausages, and beef jerky.

Kevin Martinez, M.D.Answers represent the opinions of our medical experts. All content is strictly informational and should not be considered medical advice.