Clinicians occasionally encounter people with protein deficiencies. Usually, these are in children and the elderly. In children, the cases usually involve diets grossly deficient, not only in protein, but in total calories as well. This could be the result of parental abuse or neglect. More often it happens because of financial limitations and simple ignorance of dietary requirements. The elderly often display signs of deficiencies for the following reasons :
1) Their incomes are too small to accommodate the purchase of expensive animal products.
2) They are unaware that vegetable sources can supply the nutrients they require at a much lower cost.
3) Sometimes, there is a lack of understanding of just what their nutritional needs are.
4) They also lack the incentive to cook, especially if they are alone. With families moving away, “grandmothers” do not have the opportunity to cook for others as they have been accustomed to doing for so many years. “Single” men and women just do not want to go to all that bother for themselves.
5) A cycle develops. Since they lack the incentive and/or finances to cook and eat, health problems develop, driving the incentive even further away, causing more deficiencies.
In children, severe protein deficiencies are more often found in destitute countries, but are still seen in the industrialized nations – and the numbers are rising. Because protein metabolism requires calories, one literally depends on the other. If there be insufficient calories present in a meal, the cells must commit suicide in order to digest the meagre food supply available. This protein-calorie malnutrition is also known as PEM (protein-energy malnutrition), which is a broad term encompassing such diseases as kwashiorkor and marasmus, with millions of children being affected worldwide. These diseases not only retard physical growth but mental development as well.
Kwashiorkor means “the displaced child” and occurs in children shortly after weaning, usually between the ages of one and four. It is characterized by growth failure, skin lesions, edema, and changes in hair color – with red most often seen on children or adults that should have black hair. The liver is also extensively infiltrated with fat.
Marasmus means “withering” and is usually seen at an earlier age than Kwashiorkor. Growth failure is even more severe, but the edema is usually absent. This is often seen in Third World Countries where formula has been encouraged to replace breast milk. Large corporations initially give the formula to a new mother. Later, when she cannot afford to buy it, she weakens it, trying to make it last longer. In addition, because these areas lack available and clean water, bacteria and parasites have found easy targets within weakened systems. Millions of children die each year because of this reason alone.
The Hunzas, Vilcabambans, Asians, and half a billion Hindus eat very little protein in comparison to western populations, yet display no signs of protein deficiencies, no problems of obesity, and no bone loss that is common in the nations where protein is derived from animal sources.