Protein Powder for Kids: What Parents Need to Know
December 2, 2022
Get the scoop on protein powder for kids. Is it healthy? Do kids need it? Keep reading to learn when kids may need protein powder and why most kids don’t.
It seems like more and more teens are lugging around a shaker cup filled with a protein shake.
Every parent wants their kid to be as healthy as possible, so you might wonder if giving your child protein powder is a good idea.
Shouldn’t a child’s diet provide all the macronutrients he needs for healthy growth and development?
Most healthy children get all the protein they need from a well-rounded diet.
So, the short answer is that kids usually don’t need protein powder.
However, there are a few circumstances when protein powder may benefit your child.
Let’s take a closer look at the risks and benefits of protein powder for kids.
Is Protein Powder Good for Kids?
Kids don’t need to supplement with protein powder because they can get all the protein they need from a balanced diet. More often than not, adding a protein supplement will exceed a child’s protein requirements.
The Dietary Reference Intakes (DRI) for daily protein intake are:
- 1 to 3-year-olds need 13 g
- 4 to 8-year-olds need 19 g
- 9 to 13-year-olds need 34 g
- 14 to 18-year-old boys need 52 g
- 14 to 18-year-old girls need 46 g
That may sound like a lot of protein, but it’s easy to reach if your child eats a variety of foods, especially meat, poultry, or fish.
For example, just 3.5 oz of cooked chicken breast has about 32 grams of protein.
Other food sources of protein for kids include eggs, milk, yogurt, cheese, beans, lentils, nuts, nut butter, soy milk, and tofu.
Many kid-favorite plant-based and carbohydrate-based foods have protein too.
Here are a few examples:
- One cup of Cheerios has 3.5 g of protein
- One slice of bread has 2.5 g of protein
- One cup of cooked spaghetti has 7.2 g of protein
- ½ cup of sunflower seeds has 13 g of protein
- 8 oz of soy milk has 8 g of protein
- 2 tablespoons of peanut butter has 7 g of protein
You can see how easy it is for protein to add up throughout the day.
But, if your child has multiple food allergies and is a picky eater or consumes a vegan diet, he may need to supplement with protein powder.
Let’s dive into some reasons a protein powder may be recommended for a child.
Extreme Picky Eating and ARFID
Extreme picky eating and Avoidant Restrictive Food Intake Disorder (ARFID) are situations when adding protein powder may help a child meet their protein requirements.
When kids eliminate food groups, avoid various protein foods, or don’t eat enough calories, it can impact their growth and development.
Protein powder may help fill in the gaps.
Additionally, a child who is extremely picky and kids with ARFID may be more willing to accept a protein shake.
Usually, I wouldn’t recommend protein shakes for kids. But it’s more important that your child gets the nutrients he needs while you work with professionals specializing in feeding disorders in children.
Whether sedentary or active, your child is growing and needs protein.
If you have an athlete at home, they’ll need more protein than the average child to repair muscle after exercise and cover their needs for muscle growth.
It’s possible to get quality protein from food, which will be enough for most active kids to meet their needs.
However, teen boys taking part in rigorous activity may have higher protein needs.
If your busy teen athlete needs to eat more quality protein foods throughout the day, supplementing the diet with a protein shake may help.
Vegan or Vegetarian
Plant-based diets are growing in popularity, especially among pre-teens and teens.
The biggest concern I hear from parents is that their kids won’t get enough iron and protein without meat.
Protein and iron are found in a variety of food sources, so if kids eat a well-rounded diet, they’ll most likely get enough protein.
Iron is also found in many foods but isn’t absorbed as efficiently from plant sources. But a balanced vegetarian diet which includes sources of vitamin C can meet the nutrients kids need.
If your kiddo follows a vegan diet, it may take a little more planning to ensure they’re eating critical nutrients, including B12, vitamin D, calcium, and iron. As you can see from the plant-based protein examples above, your kiddo can easily eat enough protein without animal foods.
However, it’s important to include quality protein to support growth. For example, soy is a complete protein. And you can combine foods like legumes and rice to get all the essential amino acids.
Some children battle chronic diseases like cancer that may impair their ability to eat enough food and get adequate nutrition.
These kids may be candidates for a protein-based shake or supplement, but talk with your healthcare provider first.
Is Kids Protein Powder Safe?
Protein is an essential nutrient for growth and development, but too much protein can be harmful to kids.
Excess protein in a child’s diet may lead to problems like dehydration or weight gain, and in young children, the possibility of kidney damage.
Several other concerns should make parents think twice about protein powder.
- Toxins – a recent study found arsenic, lead, BPA, mercury and cadmium in popular protein supplements.
- Limited regulation – protein powder is classified as a supplement. The FDA has different regulatory guidelines for dietary supplements than food or drugs. Manufacturers are responsible for accurately labeling supplements like protein powder.
- Added sugars – in protein mixes, added sugars may be included. Added sugars should be limited to less than 10% of daily calories.
- Artificial sweeteners
- Additives and dyes
However, if you choose to give your child protein powder, it’s important to choose a quality product that is safe for your child to consume.
What Are the Best Protein Powders for Kids?
Protein powders are generally considered safe for most kids as long as you don’t exceed the recommended amount.
Choose high-quality protein powders free from contaminants like lead and mercury. Avoid products that contain additives like artificial sweeteners and colors. Look for brands with few simple ingredients and no added sugars.
The major difference between protein powders lies in the type of protein it’s made from, some of which are top food allergens. Kids with food allergens should use caution when selecting protein powder.
Here are some of the common proteins used to make protein shakes and supplements.
- Whey (from cow’s milk and contains lactose)
- Pea protein
- Egg white
The Clean Label Project tested protein supplements and named these brands as the best.
- KompleX Nutrition
85+ Healthy Snacks for Teens!
Final Thoughts about Protein Powder for Kids
If you’re concerned that your child isn’t getting enough protein, talk to your pediatrician or a registered dietitian.
They can help you determine if adding protein powder is the right approach for your child and, if so, how much they should have, and which brands would be a good choice.
Get the big picture and read The Young Athlete: Ultimate Guide to Nutrition.