For both children and adults, protein plays a critical role in helping your body function. It builds muscle and tissue, produces hormones, strengthens bones, and transports oxygen throughout the body.
For parents of athletic kids, picky eaters, or children with food intolerance, protein shakes are a quick and portable way to supplement a child’s diet. However, too much protein may be unnecessary or even have negative effects.
If you’re concerned your child may not be getting enough of the nutrient, talk with your pediatrician first if you have concerns that your child isn't getting enough protein.
Are Protein Drinks Safe for Kids?
For children with protein deficiency or another medical condition that keeps them from getting enough protein, protein drinks can be used to supplement their diet.
However, there is a lack of evidence supporting the benefits of protein powder for children with these illnesses. In a 2015 review, researchers studied the evidence surrounding the effects of protein supplementation in children with chronic illnesses like cystic fibrosis and pediatric cancer. These illnesses often keep children from getting adequate nutrition. This study found no significant improvements in weight, height, or nutritional status.
For most healthy children, protein supplements are unnecessary. Protein deficiency is uncommon in the United States, and most children with a well-balanced diet get the recommended amount of daily protein.
Risks of Protein Drinks for Children
For children who don’t need additional protein, protein powders or drinks aren’t necessarily harmful. Any additional protein is typically broken down in the body and either used for energy or deposited as fat. However, some experts say that overdosing on protein can have unintended health consequences.
According to the Cleveland Clinic, too much protein can have the following effects:
Weight gain. Excess protein means taking in additional calories. If a child isn’t burning off those calories through day-to-day activities or sports, the body may store them as fat, which can lead to weight gain. Some protein drinks contain additional sugar, which can also cause weight gain.
Kidney and liver damage. High levels of protein can make it harder for the kidneys to filter out waste. This may lead to kidney stones, long-term kidney damage, and dehydration.
It’s important to note that these effects are associated with extremely high levels of protein in the diet. There is currently no evidence that a high protein diet can damage the kidneys of healthy people. However, studies show that a high protein diet in those with kidney disease may cause further damage to the kidneys.
Nutrient deficiency. Unless a child is taking in excessively high levels of protein, the drinks themselves are unlikely to be harmful. However, if these drinks and shakes are used to replace regular meals, children may be deprived of vital nutrients that they might find in other foods.
How Much Protein Is Needed for Children?
According to the American Academy of Family Physicians, about 10% to 20% of a child’s daily calories should come from protein.
The amount of recommended protein is different depending on age, size, weight, and gender. However, most healthy children need about half a gram of protein for every pound that they weigh. For example, a 50-pound child would need about 25 grams of protein each day.
Although additional protein supplements through drinks or powders may not harm your child, most children already get the daily recommended amount of protein through their regular diets. Relying on protein drinks and shakes as meal replacements can be harmful if the child isn't taking in other vitamins and nutrients through food.
Some of the best dietary sources of protein include:
- Lean meat (chicken, beef, fish, turkey)
- Greek yogurt
When Extra Protein Is Needed
In some cases, a child might need additional protein in their diet.
Underweight children. Children who are underweight or malnourished may be given protein drinks or other vitamin supplements. However, you should only use these products after consulting a pediatrician.
Vegan or vegetarian children. Children who don’t consume meat — or other products like milk, eggs, and cheese — may have lower levels of protein. This means they may need up to 15% more protein to reach the same levels as meat-eaters. However, this doesn’t mean that protein drinks are the only option. Peanut butter, oatmeal, corn, and spinach are good sources of protein for these diets.
Children with metabolic conditions. Children who have metabolic conditions may have difficulty breaking down substances like carbohydrates, amino acids, lipids, sugars, and more. Children with these conditions may benefit from a higher-protein diet.