Power or Pitfall: Do Kids Need Protein Supplements?

Power or Pitfall: Do Kids Need Protein Supplements?

The protein supplement industry is booming. From bars and powders to pre-mixed drinks, there are no shortage of options. Some are even marketed to children—often as a way to “round out” a picky eater’s diet.

Do kids really need extra protein?

“A lot of these protein bars are geared more towards adults who might be making some changes in their diet, to help with weight loss or even weight gain to build muscle. For the most part, children don't need these protein bars, because they can have up to 20 or 30 grams of protein per bar, which is a lot for kids. If they're younger and smaller, that's more than they need in a full day,” states Le Bonheur Clinical Dietician Anna Tuttle.

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How Much Protein Is Too Much?

Protein recommendations differ based on age and gender, and sometimes even weight. General guidelines state that children one to three years old need about 13 grams of protein, children four to eight years old need about 19 grams, and children nine to 18 years old need about 35 to 50 grams per day. In that range, males tend to be closer to the 50 grams while females require fewer—closer to the 35 grams.

“If children are consuming a balanced diet, especially with regular intake of cow’s milk and other protein-rich foods like meat, cheese, eggs, yogurt, etc., than those protein goals can be easily met,” assures Tuttle.

Even picky eaters are likely getting enough protein in unexpected foods. “Many people don't think about the different protein sources that aren't animal-based. It can be found in fruits, vegetables, nuts, and nut butters. Even a serving of Goldfish, which is a popular kid snack, has three grams of protein. A banana, depending on size, can have one to two grams of protein. So, even if a kid is a picky eater, they're probably still meeting those protein needs,” shares Tuttle.

One Potential Exception to the Rule: Teen Athletes

One area of exception in regards to protein supplementation is in teenage athletes. These kids are already growing rapidly, but the physical demands of the sports in which they’re participating may require more protein than what they might be getting in their everyday diet. Intake depends on a few different factors, including gender, type of sport, if multiple sports are being played at once, and how long and frequent training is.

“It's hard to give a blanket statement about how much protein teen athletes need. But, I would say that rather than focusing on a supplement, let's go more towards the whole foods and eating a well-balanced snack that includes two different food groups. Perhaps having a banana with peanut butter or cheese with crackers before and after practice to help get that extra protein in,” urges Tuttle.

Protein in a Pinch—But Don’t Make It a Habit

For a quick boost, the occasional protein bar or shake is okay—if it has a reasonable amount of protein, no more than about six grams. But, Tuttle cautions against making a habit out of this option and instead encourages parents to incorporate more whole, protein-rich foods into their families’ diets.

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