Why Extra Protein for Your Child Is Unnecessary – and Possibly Dangerous

A dietitian's perspective on a popular trend

Protein is your body’s main building block. It helps form muscle, produce hormones, strengthen skin and bones, and transport nutrients. It’s so important, you might think more protein equals a stronger you.

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But, consuming extra protein — particularly from protein supplements — isn’t necessarily healthy, says sports nutrition specialist Diana Schnee, MS, RD, LD. And that’s especially true for children. In fact, too much protein in a child’s diet could lead to long-term health problems.

“In most Western countries, children already get two to three times the protein they need daily,” she says. “It’s uncommon for a child to need extra.”

Still, taking protein supplements or adding protein powders to foods, shakes or smoothies is a popular trend for growing children and teenagers. You may notice this trend more if your child is an athlete — especially if you have a boy who wants to bulk up and get bigger and stronger.

Daily protein needs

So how much protein is enough? Ten percent to 30 percent of your calorie intake should come from protein, says the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine,:

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  • For younger children, it breaks down by age: Children ages 4 to 9 need 19 grams of protein each day. Those between ages 9 and 13 need 34 grams.
  • For adolescents, ages 14 to 18, it varies by gender: Boys need 52 grams and girls need 46 grams.

Overall, children should get enough protein every day if they eat two servings of dairy, such as milk, yogurt, cheese, and one or two servings of lean protein, such as lean beef, pork, poultry, fish. Anything additional from protein supplements exceeds their daily needs.

It’s a myth that boys or children who are more active need more protein to fuel their bodies, Ms. Schnee says. They do burn more protein, but only elite athletes should consider adding protein to their diets, and only if they are older than 18, she says.

Dangers of protein supplements

Instead of helping, adding extra protein from supplements to your child’s diet can cause long-term health problems, including:

  • Weight gain — Excess protein means excess calories. If a child can’t burn the calories off, the body stores them as fat.
  • Organ damage — High protein levels can cause kidney stones and make the kidneys work harder to filter out waste products. A high-protein diet wears the kidneys out over time, and contributes to dehydration. Processing protein also creates nitrogen in the liver. High levels of nitrogen make it harder for the body to process waste and toxins. High levels of nitrogen also can decrease the body’s ability to break down nutrients.
  • Issues for children with weakened immune systems — Protein supplements aren’t regulated by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), Ms. Schnee says. Many products don’t label all their ingredients, so you don’t know exactly what your child is consuming. Many protein powders contain stimulants or substances that can take a toll on your child’s immune system.

When extra protein is needed

There are special cases in which a child might need additional dietary protein. But, even then, protein supplements or shakes aren’t the best option, Ms. Schnee says.

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Your child may need extra protein if he or she:

  • Is underweight – Offering a protein shake or supplement may seem like an easy fix, but use caution. “You shouldn’t give protein drinks to children simply because they’re underweight,” Ms. Schnee says. “Don’t use these products without consulting a pediatrician.”
  • Is a picky eater – What if your child doesn’t like meat or wants to subsist only on pasta or pizza? They might consume less protein than other children, but they likely still meet their nutritional needs, she says.
  • Is vegan/vegetarian – Children who don’t eat meat often have lower protein levels. They might need 10 percent to 15 percent more protein intake to get the same benefits as meat-eaters, Ms. Schnee says. She suggests peanut butter, oatmeal and certain vegetables, such as peas, corn, and spinach,  as good sources of protein for them.
  • Has a metabolic condition – Children who have conditions that cause protein waste can also benefit from a higher-protein diet, she says.

Remember, real foods — not protein supplements — are always better for growing bodies, especially after a hard workout.

“Teens and teen athletes are sometimes drawn to protein supplements after a workout,” she says. “But kids need a combination of protein and carbs to rebuild muscle broken down during a workout. It’s always best for them to eat a meal.”