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Protein and Lymphedema

One of the great myths that always seem to reemerge in the lymphedema world is the notion that because our limbs are swollen with a protein rich fluid, that those of us with lymphedema should be on a low protein diet.

Nothing could be further from the truth. It is a basic reality of our physiology that a certain amount of protein is required for a healthy life.

In addition, the protein in the lymph fluid is waste protein and a by-product of our body’s metabolic process.

The suggestion that a low protein diet is going to help your lymphedema is simply scientifically not true and is just plain bad medicine.

It is bad medicine because there actually is a complication of lymphedema that can cause you to loose protein and wind up in with a serious medical condition.

This is called intestinal lymphangiectasia. Commonly referred to as IL, the lymphatics of the intestine are dilated in IL and thus are unable to process fats and proteins correctly. Patients with IL are put on “high” protein diets with severe restriction on fat consumption.

You can also have intestinal lymphangiectasia and not even be aware of it or of what it is doing to your body.

Many people have shared that their lymphedema has “moved” into their abdomen. They report a distended or swollen abdomen that is hard to the touch because of the fluids.

If you have lymphedema in the abdomen, your lymphatics are dilated. Several things begin happening when you lymphatics become dilated. As a result of the dilation, the lymphatic valves are unable to close properly causing lymph fluid to “leak” into the interstitial space, (tissues) thus causing more swelling. You begin to loose extensive protein as a result of this. Quickly, you can find yourself in a serious state of protein deficiency. Protein deficiency will cause even more edema. This is the viscous cycle you will find yourself in with protein deficiency.

So, please before you believe what someone “claims” to be true, do your research. For your health, maintain the recommended levels of dietary protein.

The importance of Protein

The word “protein” is rooted in the Greek “protas,” meaning “of primary importance.”

Protein and the amino acids contained in it are basic building blocks of our body. Indeed many of our “body parts” such as brain cells, muscle, skin, hair and nails are protein based. Infact, estimates suggest that about half of the human body’s dry weight is made up of protein.

Protein is an essential need for the immune system to fight infections and is critical in wound healing. When you have an infection, you should eat more protein because it helps create the antibodies your immune system needs to fight disease. If you are injured, you may need more, as well, to help your blood clot and make repairs.

Without protein you would lack the enzymes and hormones you need for metabolism, digestion and other important processes.

Protein is made up of amino acids, which are also vital to our overall health

Amino Acids

Amino Acids are the chemical units or “building blocks” of the body that make up proteins. Protein substances make up the muscles, tendons, organs, glands, nails, and hair. Growth, repair and maintenance of all cells are dependent upon them. Next to water, protein makes up the greatest portion of our body weight. Amino Acids that must be obtained from the diet are called “Essential Amino Acids” other Amino Acids that the body can manufacture from other sources are called “Nonessential Amino Acids.”

Symptoms of protein deficiency

The human body can’t store protein, so it must be supplied on a daily basis from the foods we eat. Strict vegetarians who don’t consume any animal products at all are at increased risk of protein deficiency if they don’t eat a wide range of complementary plant proteins. Symptoms of protein deficiency include:

  • Wasting and shrinkage of muscle tissue
  • Edema (build-up of fluids, particularly in the feet and ankles)
  • Anemia (the blood’s inability to deliver sufficient oxygen to the cells, usually caused by dietary deficiencies such as lack of iron)
  • Slow growth (in children).

What is Protein?

Proteins are part of every cell, tissue, and organ in our bodies. These body proteins are constantly being broken down and replaced. The protein in the foods we eat is digested into amino acids that are later used to replace these proteins in our bodies.

Protein is found in the following foods:

  • meats, poultry, and fish
  • legumes (dry beans and peas)
  • tofu
  • eggs
  • nuts and seeds
  • milk and milk products
  • grains, some vegetables, and some fruits (provide only small amounts of protein relative to other sources)

As we mentioned, most adults in the United States get more than enough protein to meet their needs. It's rare for someone who is healthy and eating a varied diet to not get enough protein.

What are the types of protein?

Proteins are made up of amino acids. Think of amino acids as the building blocks. There are 20 different amino acids that join together to make all types of protein. Some of these amino acids can't be made by our bodies, so these are known as essential amino acids. It's essential that our diet provide these.

In the diet, protein sources are labeled according to how many of the essential amino acids they provide:

  • A complete protein source is one that provides all of the essential amino acids. You may also hear these sources called high quality proteins. Animal-based foods; for example, meat, poultry, fish, milk, eggs, and cheese are considered complete protein sources.

An incomplete protein source is one that is low in one or more of the essential amino acids. Complementary proteins are two or more incomplete protein sources that together provide adequate amounts of all the essential amino acids.

For example, rice contains low amounts of certain essential amino acids; however, these same essential amino acids are found in greater amounts in dry beans. Similarly, dry beans contain lower amounts of other essential amino acids that can be found in larger amounts in rice. Together, these two foods can provide adequate amounts of all the essential amino acids the body needs.

How much protein do I need?

Maybe you've wondered how much protein you need each day. In general, it's recommended that 10–35% of your daily calories come from protein. Below are the Recommended Dietary Allowances (RDA) for different age groups.2

Recommended Dietary Allowance for Protein

Grams of protein needed each day

Children ages 1 – 3 13 Children ages 4 – 8 19 Children ages 9 – 13 34 Girls ages 14 – 18 46 Boys ages 14 – 18 52 Women ages 19 – 70+ 46 Men ages 19 – 70+ 56

Here are examples of amounts of protein in food:

  • 1 cup of milk has 8 grams of protein
  • A 3-ounce piece of meat has about 21 grams of protein
  • 1 cup of dry beans has about 16 grams of protein
  • An (8) eight ounce container of yogurt has about 11 grams of protein

Added together, just these four sources would meet the protein needs of an adult male (56 grams). This doesn't count all the other foods that add smaller amounts of protein to his diet.

Rather than just focusing on your protein needs, choose an overall healthy eating plan that provides the protein you need as well as other nutrients. is a Web site that lets you enter your age, sex, height, weight, and activity level to determine your calorie needs and get a customized meal plan right for you. This plan will also tell you the amounts you need from the meat and beans group and the milk group, which are foods to help meet your protein needs.

Nutrition for Everyone – CDC

Abstracts and Studies

Pathophysiological Aspects of Lymphedema of Human Limbs: I. Lymph Protein Composition

External Links


Learning about Proteins

Protein in Diet

Protein S Deficiency

Protein C Deficiency

The Chemistry of Amino Acids

Amino Acids Section

The Amino Acid Collection

Lymphedema People Links

Lymphedema People Resources

protein_and_lymphedema.txt · Last modified: 2012/10/16 14:40 (external edit)