Proteins are some of the essential nutrients required by the human body. Besides muscle and tissue construction, proteins are used to repair worn out cells and tissues. Also the biggest portion of the immune system is made up of proteins. In situations of starvation, proteins are broken down to provide energy.
Like other nutritional disorders, defective diets result into protein deficiency. Despite individuals choosing diets because of taste preferences, findings show that ignorance continues to play a big role in protein deficiency. But how can you tell?
From signs and symptoms, it is possible to tell. If the hair become rough and brittle or starts to fall off without an apparent reason, one should suspect a deficiency of proteins in the body. This happens because hair is made of keratin, the only protein deposit with dead cells.
Similarly, nails become stunted and tend to break easily. White lines can also form over nails. The skin can become dry and flaky. One can feel dull, tired and memory loss can not be ruled out under such conditions. In extreme deficiency, swelling starts with the face before spreading over the entire body. This results from the accumulation of excess fluid in the body spaces (oedema). The affected person suffers difficulty in breathing, which increases progressively as the deficiency persists.
Depending on the person’s age, physical fitness, breathlessness may occur after walking a particular distance. Gradually this distance shortens and the person may become breathless even at rest.
The collection of fluid in the lining of lungs and heart places load on them, augmenting the breathlessness and impairing the function of these organs. Muscles tend to become flabby in adults and the individual becomes prone muscular pains and aches. Besides these physical signs, individuals can tell their protein status from other manifestations.
One with protein deficiency tends to feel hungry frequently. This is because they feed only on carbohydrates that are digested quickly leading to a sense of hunger. Since proteins are involved in manufacture of antibodies that fight against diseases, their deficiency makes one susceptible to infections. There may be delayed healing of even small wounds especially in individuals with suppressed immune systems such as renal failure, diabetes or HIV/AIDS.
Clinically, physical signs and measurement of level of proteins in the blood can easily be used to diagnose protein deficiency.
The daily requirement of proteins is about 0.8-1 grams/kilogram body weight. Individual daily average requirement differs with age, level of physical activity, gender and other special conditions like pregnancy or sickness.
Proteins are formed from long chains of different amino acids (molecules which are present in various kinds of foods). Plant foods like nuts, different kinds of beans, pulses, mushrooms, contain proteins in varied amounts.
Considering the importance of proteins for the body, a balanced diet should always include adequate amount of these foods. Animal products contain greater amount of proteins compared to plant sources. Foods like, eggs, meat, fish are very rich sources of protein. But meat has other health hazards such as high amounts of cholesterol that could predispose one to other health problems.
However, fish and other white meat are good because they do not result into increase cholesterol. Vegetable products offer more fiber, prevent constipation and provide anti oxidants, which help in removing free toxic radicals in the body. The ideal approach should combine vegetable and animal products in the meals.
A word of caution here; Since too much of anything is always bad, excess proteins are not stored in the body, they are converted into other nutrients via series of complex cycles. Some of these require removing certain components from the amino acid chains which puts the kidneys under a lot of work. Proteins can also be converted to fats and overload results into obesity.
Dr Rachna Pande is specialist internal medicine, Butaro Hospital