Dodging protein deficiency

The first sign of protein deficiency is likely to be weak muscles — the body tissue most reliant on protein. For example, children who do not get enough protein have shrunken, weak muscles. They may also have thin hair, their skin may be covered with sores, and blood tests may show that the level of albumin in their blood is below normal. Albumin is a protein that helps maintain the body's fluid balance, keeping a proper amount of liquid in and around body cells.

A protein deficiency may also show up in your blood. Red blood cells live for only 120 days. Protein is needed to produce new ones. People who do not get enough protein may become anemic, having fewer red blood cells than they need. Protein deficiency may also show up as fluid retention (the big belly on a starving child), hair loss, and muscle wasting caused by the body's attempt to protect itself by digesting the proteins in its own muscle tissue. That's why victims of starvation are, literally, skin and bones.

Given the high protein content of a normal American diet (which generally provides far more protein than you actually require), protein deficiency is rare in the United States except as a consequence of eating disorders such as anorexia nervosa (refusal to eat) and bulimia (regurgitation after meals).

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