Hypoproteinemia is a condition in which a person has low protein levels in the blood. It can occur if a person does not eat enough or has certain health conditions. Treatment will depend on the underlying cause.

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 must 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 balanced diet. However, people with certain health conditions or diets lacking in protein may develop the condition.

This article explains the symptoms, causes, and treatments for hypoproteinemia, including tips 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 very low protein levels in the body can include:

Some of these symptoms may also indicate other health problems, such as iron deficiency anemia or problems with the immune system. It is only possible to identify hypoproteinemia through medical tests.

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

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

Malnutrition and undereating

Malnutrition is a potential cause of low protein in the blood. It can lead to low levels of albumin, a type of protein. Low levels of albumin is called hypoalbuminemia.

Diet-related hypoproteinemia may occur in the following instances:

  • A person has inadequate income to buy food and does not consume enough calories from protein.
  • During pregnancy, as pregnant or lactating people need more protein than usual to support the development of a fetus. Pregnancy can cause hypoalbuminemia and hypoproteinemia.
  • A person has an eating disorder, such as anorexia nervosa and bulimia nervosa. These may result in a diet that does not provide enough protein.
  • An individual follows a restrictive diet, such as one that eliminates nearly all sources of plant and animal proteins.

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 certain 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 with 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 containing 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. A healthcare professional may diagnose malnutrition with a blood protein test.

Inflammatory bowel disease

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

Damage to the small intestine can lead to different nutrient deficiencies, including hypoproteinemia. A doctor may diagnose this malnutrition with a blood protein test.

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 an autoimmune condition.

A doctor will tailor treatment directly to the cause of the low protein. Treatment may also vary depending on factors such as a person’s:

  • diet
  • health status
  • age
  • medical history

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

Examples of potential treatments include:

  • A person with an eating disorder may need to receive treatment such as psychotherapy. Healthcare professionals can help them 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 can require extensive medical treatment and further monitoring, with regular follow-ups by a doctor.
  • Pregnant people with extreme nausea and vomiting may need treatment to alleviate their symptoms, such as anti-sickness medications and ginger.

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

According to the 2020–2025 Dietary Guidelines for Americans, under 60% of people in the United States are at or above the protein intake recommendation.

The guidelines suggest that most adult females consume around 46 grams (g) of protein per day and most adult males consume around 56 g.

Pregnant or lactating people typically need more protein, with the guidelines recommending 71 g daily.

People can speak with a healthcare professional about their protein intake if they are not sure how much protein they need or if they are having difficulty meeting the guideline recommendations.

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, hemp, quinoa, and amarynth are plant-based proteins that are sources of complete protein. These foods contain all the essential amino acids the body needs.

Consuming a variety of foods containing protein is usually the best way to avoid developing hypoproteinemia.

Although most plant-based foods are not complete proteins, eating a variety of plant-based foods can offer the necessary amino acids. They also offer fiber, vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants that support health.

In addition to providing a wealth of disease-fighting nutrients, eating a variety of plant foods ensures an adequate amount of protein and essential amino acids in a diet.

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

Plant proteins

Many plant-based proteins only offer some of the essential amino acids. People who follow a vegetarian or vegan diet should ensure they are getting all the amino acids they need by eating various healthful, plant-based protein foods each day.

Examples of plant-based proteins include:

  • soybeans
  • tofu
  • quinoa
  • edamame beans
  • lentils
  • chickpeas
  • almonds
  • peanuts
  • chia seeds

Animal proteins

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

Fish may contain mercury or other contaminants, so children or pregnant people may benefit from avoiding fish that are high in mercury.

Some animal-based protein options include:

  • lean cuts of meat, including:
    • chicken
    • turkey
    • pork
  • eggs
  • anchovies
  • salmon
  • light tuna

Hypoproteinemia is a condition in which a person has too little protein in their blood. It can requires medical care depending on the cause. The long-term outlook depends upon the cause of protein deficiency.

A person can work with healthcare professionals to manage their protein levels and make any necessary dietary changes if they have low protein levels.

Protein can come from a variety of animal and plant-based sources. People can speak with a healthcare professional if they need help getting enough protein.