Protein is an essential macronutrient found throughout the body — in muscle, bone, skin, hair, and elsewhere. Protein is also a critical part of the processes that fuel your energy and carry oxygen throughout your body in your blood. Though children need less protein than adults do, everyone should get 10% to 35% of their daily calories from protein.
In the world of weight loss, protein has been having a moment. According to the NPD, the majority of US consumers — 78% — agree that protein contributes to a healthy diet, and more than half of adults say they want more of it in their diets. But what about protein for children? Are they getting enough? And if not, is it safe to supplement their intake with protein powder?
How Much Protein Do Kids Need?
The recommended daily amounts of protein for children are:
- Children ages 2 to 3: 2 ounce-equivalent of protein
- Children ages 4 to 8: 4 ounce-equivalent of protein
- Children ages 9 and 13: 5 ounce-equivalent of protein
For adolescents ages 14 to 18, it varies by gender — teenage boys need 6 and a half ounce-equivalent of protein, while teenage girls still need a 5-ounce equivalent. If children consume more protein than they need, it may cause more harm than good.
Healthy Eating for Kids
The Office of Disease Prevention and Health Promotion includes key recommendations for healthy eating patterns. The guidelines suggest:
- Eating a variety of vegetables and fruits, especially whole fruits
- Eating grains, at least half of which are whole grains
- Eating fat-free or low-fat dairy, including milk, yogurt, cheese, and/or fortified soy beverages
- Eating a variety of protein-rich foods, including seafood, lean meats and poultry, eggs, legumes, nuts and seeds, and soy products
- Cooking and baking with healthy oils
- Avoiding or limiting saturated fats and trans fats, added sugars, and sodium
Foods High in Protein
Protein is made up of twenty-plus basic building blocks called amino acids. Nine amino acids—histidine, isoleucine, leucine, lysine, methionine, phenylalanine, threonine, tryptophan, and valine—known as the essential amino acids, must come from food.
Once your child is able to eat solid foods, they should be able to get enough protein through their diet. Foods high in protein include:
- Dairy like milk, cheese, and yogurt
- Beans and legumes
- Lean meats
- Nuts and seeds
Benefits of Protein Powder for Children
If your child is unable to get the necessary amount of protein from whole foods, protein supplements — such as protein powder — may be helpful. Your child may need extra protein if:
- They are underweight
- They are a picky eater
- They eat a vegan or vegetarian diet
- They have a metabolic condition
As always, talk to your child’s doctor before adding any protein powders or supplements to their diet. They can review your child's growth curve and determine where the deficiencies may lie.
Risks of Giving Protein Powder to Kids
If your child gets more protein than they need, it won’t be used efficiently. Rather, it may impose a metabolic burden on their organs. In addition, high-protein/high-meat diets may also be associated with an increased risk for coronary heart disease or even cancer.
There are several side effects that your child might experience, such as:
Digestive issues. If you give your child whey protein powder, they may have problems digesting it. This could cause symptoms such as bloating, gas, cramps, and diarrhea. Most of these side effects are due to lactose intolerance.
Weight gain. If your child takes in more protein than he needs, his body will store the excess calories as fat. One-third of children in the US are overweight or obese, which places them at a higher risk of developing chronic weight-related health and medical problems.
Organ damage. A high-protein diet may make your child’s kidneys work harder to filter out waste products, wearing the kidneys out over time and contributing to dehydration. High protein levels can also cause kidney stones. Processing protein creates nitrogen in the liver, which makes it harder for the body to process waste and toxins and decreases the body’s ability to break down nutrients.
Symptoms of Protein Deficiency in Children
There are many signs your child might not be getting enough protein, including:
- Delayed or stunted growth rate
- Lower immunity
- Hunger (which may lead to weight gain)
If your child is displaying or complaining of any of the above symptoms, contact their pediatrician.
Tips for Preventing Protein Deficiencies in Children
First, get familiar with the daily protein recommendations for your child’s age group and be aware of the signs and symptoms of protein deficiency listed above. In addition, take the following steps:
Add more protein-rich foods to their diet. Find ways to provide protein for your child throughout the day without relying on protein shakes. There are plenty of healthy snacks for kids; you’re bound to find some they’ll enjoy.
Be aware of the risks of malnutrition. Kwashiorkor is a severe form of malnutrition. The main cause of kwashiorkor is not eating enough protein or other essential vitamins and minerals. It's most common in some developing regions, but it can happen to any child that is malnourished.
Talk with your doctor. If you aren't sure where to start or still have questions or concerns about your child’s protein intake, talk to your pediatrician. They may refer you to a registered dietitian for additional guidance.