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.
How much daily protein does my child need?
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.
- 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 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.”
The 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),” 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 digestive system.”
Are there circumstances 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 options,” Schnee says.
Your child may need extra protein if they:
- 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,” 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 or vegetarian. Children who don’t eat meat often have lower protein levels. “They might need 10-15% more protein intake to get the same benefits as meat-eaters,” Schnee says. She suggests peanut butter, beans, oatmeal and certain vegetables, such as peas, broccoli 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,” 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.”