Health Effects Associated with Proteins

Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Rebecca Gillaspy

Dr. Gillaspy has taught health science at University of Phoenix and Ashford University and has a degree from Palmer College of Chiropractic.

If a diet is deficient in protein, it can lead to a type of protein-energy malnutrition (PEM), such as kwashiorkor or marasmus. If a diet is too high in protein, it can lead to dehydration or increase the risk of heart disease or cancer. Learn about all of this and more in this lesson. Updated: 10/15/2019

Protein-Energy Malnutrition (PEM)

If you suddenly decided to stop eating protein, do you know what would happen? Well, for starters your muscles would not be happy. Because you are not taking in protein through your diet, your body steals it from your muscles and repurposes your muscle proteins into proteins that keep you alive, like enzymes and hormones.

And, if you are planning on avoiding protein-containing foods, then I would suggest that you also avoid anybody with a cold, because insufficient protein means an insufficient immune system. Life without protein would not be fun and would leave you feeling so fatigued that it would be very difficult to find enough energy to carry out your normal daily activities, because you would much rather sprawl out on the couch for a mid-afternoon nap.

Fortunately, people living in developed countries, like the United States, rarely have trouble getting enough protein in their diet; in fact, citizens of the U.S. may be more likely to suffer from health effects associated with the intake of too much protein. It's a different story for those living in developing countries, where protein deficiency is a major problem due to a lack of high-protein foods, like meats and high-quality plant proteins.

In this lesson, we will learn about health consequences associated with protein-energy malnutrition (PEM), which is a form of malnutrition brought on by an insufficient intake of protein and/or energy, as well as health problems associated with high-protein diets.

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  • 0:01 Protein-Energy…
  • 1:36 Kwashiorkor
  • 3:24 Marasmus
  • 4:09 High-Protein Diets
  • 5:46 Lesson Summary
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Protein-energy malnutrition is a potentially fatal disorder, and is a leading cause of death among children living in developing countries. PEM can affect anyone, but children are especially susceptible because sufficient protein is needed to support their growing bodies. One type of PEM is kwashiorkor, which happens when protein is deficient, but overall energy is adequate. In other words, a child with this type of malnutrition typically takes in sufficient calories (i.e. energy), but the foods are too low in protein to support the child's health.

Kwashiorkor is a native word of Ghana, which is a republic in West Africa. If we translate the word, it means 'the disease that the first child gets when a second child is born.' Now, at first glance this might seem like an odd name, but it does describe how this condition can come about. In undeveloped regions, an older child may have to stop breast feeding, because the mother is pregnant with another child. The older child misses out on the protein from the breast milk and is switched to a diet similar to older members of the family. The food provides the child with calories but is often low in protein, leading to the disease.

I bet you've seen pictures of a child with this disorder; they can be identified by the characteristic swollen belly that results from fluids building up in the abdomen. You can use this familiar image to help you recall this term if you think that a child with kwashiorkor has fluids washing into their core. Sufficient protein is needed for proper growth and immune function, so a child with kwashiorkor will have slowed growth and be prone to infections.


Another form of protein-energy malnutrition is marasmus, which happens when both protein and energy are deficient. A child with this disorder is not going to get enough calories of any type. Knowing this makes it is easy to see why the word marasmus, which is the Greek word for to waste away, is used to describe this form of malnutrition.

A child with marasmus will look emaciated because the muscles and body fat are burned up to provide energy. Children with marasmus will suffer from some of the same symptoms as children with kwashiorkor, such as an impaired immune system and slowed growth, but will not have the characteristic swollen abdomen due to the overall wasting away of the body.

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