Leishmaniasis remains one of the world's most devastating neglected tropical diseases. It mainly affects developing countries, where it often co-exists with chronic malnutrition, one of the main risk factors for developing the disease. Few studies have been published, however, on the relationship between leishmaniasis progression and malnutrition. The present paper reports the influence of protein malnutrition on the immune response and visceral disease development in adult hamsters infected with Leishmania infantum fed either standard or low protein diets. The low protein diet induced severe malnutrition in these animals, and upon infection with L. infantum 33% had severe visceral leishmaniasis compared to only 8% of animals fed the standard diet. The infected, malnourished animals showed notable leukocyte depletion, mild specific antibody responses, impairment of lymphoproliferation, presence of parasites in blood (16.67% of the hamsters) and significant increase of the splenic parasite burden. Animals fed standard diet suffered agranulocytosis and monocytopenia, but showed stronger specific immune responses and had lower parasite loads than their malnourished counterparts. The present results show that protein malnutrition promotes visceral leishmaniasis and provide clues regarding the mechanisms underlying the impairment of the immune system.