I was recently asked a question by a fellow Mom about whether or not it was safe for her tween son to be consuming protein shakes. Her question went something like this:
"My 11-year-old spent a few days with a friend who is very athletic, and came home LOVING and asking for protein shakes that his friend's mom makes, which included a scoop chocolate protein powder, almond milk, peanut butter, and a frozen banana. My son isn't quite as active as his friend. He doesn't do as much cardio exercise, but more muscle work (such as Jiu Jitsu, etc.). I'm wondering if I should be giving these to my son... are they safe? What kind of protein powder should I be using and how much? I hope they are reasonably healthy because I bought a hemp protein powder and have been making shakes for him and they fill him up for two whole hours! He NEVER stops eating and it's exhausting."
Even though my kids are all under the age of six and I can't relate on a personal level yet, it got me thinking about how many parents must wonder the same thing. Protein powders and shakes are quite popular among young athletes, who have hopes that it may help make them stronger, faster and better at their sport (or teens looking to "bulk" up). Parents are likely confused as to whether these supplements are needed and/or safe for their child to be taking.
It's important to determine whether or not a child actually needs the extra protein before adding it to his or her smoothies or shakes. The truth is, most healthy people — kids, teens and adults — do not need protein supplements to meet their daily needs, even if they're looking to gain lean body mass (muscle) or if they are very active. In fact, excess protein can actually be harmful.
If a child plays a competitive anaerobic sport — let's say hockey — they may have increased protein and energy needs in order to keep up with their training (and normal growth), but until they has gone through puberty, he likely won't produce "bigger" muscles.
Here are the Dietary Reference Intakes (DRI's) for protein for kids *this includes both Estimated Average Requirements (EAR's) Recommended Dietary Allowances (RDA's):
1-3 year-olds: 13 grams/per day or 1.05 g/kg/day (this would be equivalent to one egg + 1/4 cup greek yogurt + 1/2 oz of cooked meat)
4-8 year-olds: 19 grams/day or 0.95 g/kg/day (this would be the equivalent to 1 oz cooked chicken + 1 cheese string + 1 cup of milk)
9-13 year-olds: 34 grams/day or 0.95g/kg/day (this would be equivalent to 2 oz cooked beef + 2 tbsp peanut butter + 1/2 cup greek yogurt + 1/2 cup quinoa
14-18 year-old boys: 52 grams/day or 0.85g/kg/day (this would be equivalent to 3 oz of cooked meat/poultry or fish + 1/2 cup cottage cheese + 1 cup milk + 2 tbsp peanut butter)
14-18 year-old girls: 46 grams/day or 0.85g/kg/day (this would be equivalent to 1/2 cup chickpeas + 1.5 oz mozzarella cheese + 1 cup milk + 2 oz cooked fish + 1 egg)
You can see how your child is likely meeting his or her requirements from day to day quite easily through food alone. One scoop of whey protein powder (which is a high quality, well-absorbed form of complete protein) usually provides between 20 and 30 (or more) grams of protein. That would be ON TOP of what your child has eaten already in one day.
Although there are no official protein recommendations for young male athletes, some experts suggest that 1-1.5 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight per day is more appropriate. But still, if a teen or tween boy weighs 90 lbs and he is consuming 1.5g/kg/day of protein, this could equal about 60 grams of protein. Add one or two more ounce of cooked meat to his day and he's there!
Both animal and plant-based protein-rich foods such as meats, poultry, fish, dairy, eggs, beans, lentils, nuts, seeds and whole grains provide plenty of dietary protein that allows kids to build, maintain and repair their bodily tissues, even when they're really active. A protein shake may seem like an easy way to boost protein, but making a smoothie with Greek yogurt, milk, fruit, and either a tablespoon of seeds or nut butter can easily provide 20-25 grams of protein depending on size, along with a whole host of other important nutrients. Adding a scoop of protein powder to that (or even just protein powder mixed with water) might tip a teen over the edge in the protein department. Too much extra protein is hard on your child's kidneys and liver, and can even interfere with calcium absorption. With a higher protein intake, comes higher water needs as well (which could lead to potential dehydration).
In saying all of this, there are some cases where protein powder may be appropriate. Let's say if your child is a vegetarian and doesn't tend to meet his or her targets for protein everyday. Or perhaps he or she has an unusually busy schedule with school, travelling and training and doesn't always have time to sit down and eat a balanced meal or snack. Or perhaps your child is pickier than usual, and doesn't like the texture or taste of higher protein foods. These are all potential reasons why to include a bit of protein powder in their diet.
If this is the case for your child, make sure to choose a protein powder as opposed to a ready-made protein shake, because ready-made varieties often contain fillers, sweeteners and artificial flavours and colours — all things that they don't need.
Whey protein powders:
Whey protein is the "gold standard" of protein powders because it's a well-absorbed, complete protein (meaning that it has all 9 essential amino acids) that is removed in the "cheese-making" process. It's lactose-free, easily and quickly digested, and has a well-accepted texture and taste.
Soy protein powders:
Soy protein isolate is typically what soy protein powder is made up of, which is a purified form of soy that has had the carbohydrate portion removed. Although plant-based, soy protein powders contain all 9 essential amino acids and may be a good alternative for vegetarians. Here's an article to read if you're wondering about the safety of soy.
Hemp protein powders:
This type of protein powder also contains all essential amino acids as well as other nutrients such as fibre, iron, and omega-3 fatty acids. It's a great alternative for vegetarians or people who are allergic to dairy.
Pea protein powders:
Pea protein powder is another vegan protein source, and is also gluten and dairy-free (similar to soy, hemp and rice protein powders). It is not a complete protein, therefore would have to be paired with another vegan source of protein (or an animal source) to render it complete.
Brown rice protein powders:
Even though rice has very little protein, it does contain a little bit, which is extracted to make brown rice protein powder. It does not include all 9 essential amino acids, therefore is an incomplete protein source. Pairing it with another animal source of protein, or some pea or hemp protein powder, however, will make it complete. Rice protein powder is hypo-allergenic and easily digested, making it a good alternative for those who have lots of food sensitivities or allergies.
Protein powders typically contain between 15 and 30 grams of protein per serving, so make sure that you and your child read the label and be careful not to exceed about 2g/kg/day of protein all together (including food sources). As a Dietitian, I always recommend whole foods first, as they also contain several other nutrients that are important for growth and overall health, but if your child's needs are being met through diet alone, filling the gaps with protein powder might be a good option.
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