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 may even think more protein equals a stronger you.
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You might want to pump the brakes instead. “Consuming extra protein — particularly from protein supplements — isn’t necessarily healthy or beneficial,” says sports nutrition specialist Diana Schnee, MS, RD, CSP, LD. “And that’s especially true for children. In fact, excessive protein intake doesn’t lead to more muscle development, but instead can put stress on their liver and kidneys and increase the risk for dehydration.”
“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 they want to bulk up and get bigger and stronger.
So how much protein is enough? “Ten to 30% of your calorie intake should come from protein,” says the Food and Nutrition Board, Institute of Medicine, National Academy of Sciences.
Overall, children should get enough protein every day for basic needs and athletics if they eat two servings of lean protein, such as lean beef, pork, poultry, fish, Greek yogurt or meat alternatives. Anything additional from protein supplements likely exceeds their daily needs and is unnecessary.
“For child athletes, the focus should be more on adequate intake of whole foods as opposed to supplements,” Schnee says. “They do have slightly higher protein needs, but only elite athletes should consider adding protein supplements to their diets, and only if they are older than 18.”
Instead of helping, adding extra protein from supplements to your child’s diet can cause long-term health problems, including:
“There are special cases in which a child might need additional dietary protein. But, even then, protein supplements or shakes aren’t the best options,” Schnee says.
Your child may need extra protein if they:
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,” Schnee 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.”