Nutrition & Diet

Why Protein is important for your teen athlete?

Written by Divya Gandhi
Published: January 10, 2023
Founder/Owner/Dietitian at Diet and Cure Clinic with 10 Years of experience. Double Diploma from VLCC & IGNOU, BBA from IP University

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Protein for kids is a quintessential nutrient that aids several biological functions in the body, including the repair and growth of many cellular structures.

Teen athletes have a greater need for protein-rich food than less-active children. They require a higher calorie count to support their demanding athletic training, for their proper growth, muscle and bone development, and maturation. For instance, a female teen athlete may need nearly 3,000 calories and a male teen athlete may need around 4,000 calories per day.

Athletic teens participating in multiple sports activities have even larger caloric and protein needs. For example, your child might prefer being a part of the cricket and basketball team at the same time. The requirement of protein for children with such heavy training requirements along with their day-to-day activities is even higher. 

An inadequate intake of protein food for kids with athletic interests can result in overall low energy and strength. For example, low energy in female teen athletes can lead to short stature, increased injury, delayed puberty, poor bone health, metabolic issues, menstrual irregularities, and eating disorders.

Importance of Protein for kids in athletics

Protein is an essential component for growth and development, production of energy, and tissue repair in the body. Athletic performance is dependent on muscle strength, and muscle strength comes from an adequate protein intake. Protein for children is also vital to nurture physiological function during adolescence.

Protein foods for kids tend to provide amino acids necessary for gene activity, circulation of biological molecules, production of energy, and the synthesis of hormones, enzymes, and neurotransmitters. A positive protein balance is necessary for the growth, tissue repair, and synthesis of biologically active proteins.

Nitrogen is a fundamental component of amino acids, which are the molecular building blocks of protein. Nitrogen balance is usually used to determine dietary protein requirements in the body. A positive nitrogen balance is associated with periods of growth, hypothyroidism, and tissue repair. Positive nitrogen balance means that the intake of nitrogen in the body is greater than the loss of nitrogen from the body, resulting in an increase in the total body pool of protein.

A negative nitrogen balance is linked with burns, serious tissue injuries, fever, hyperthyroidism, and wasting diseases. This means that the loss of nitrogen from the body is greater than the amount of nitrogen ingested.

What is the adequate amount of Protein for children?

The recommended dietary allowance (RDA) of protein for non-athletes is different from the needs of teen athletes. The amount of protein-rich food for kids involved in sports activities, to meet their daily protein intake needs, is required in higher quantities than the other kids. 

RDA for an adequate amount of protein for kids (Non-Athletes):

Gender & Age RDA (grams/per day)
Boys (9-13 years) 34
Boys (14-18 years) 52 
Girls (9-13 years) 34
Girls (14-18 years) 46

RDA for an adequate amount of protein for teen athletes (measured in grams per pound of body weight of the child)

Gender & Age RDA (grams per pound/per day)
Boys (9-18 years) 0.7-0.9 
Girls (9-18 years) 0.7-0.9

The amount for optimal intake of protein for kids in athletics is measured, as grams required per pound of their body weight, which means if your child weighs 59 kg then the requirement of protein intake per day would be 91-117 grams.

Protein-rich food for kids

Serving a variety of protein foods for kids keeps them healthy and strong. There are plenty of protein foods out there which can be a part of the child’s daily diet in delicious ways. 

Protein can be obtained from plant-based food, dairy and dairy products, and animal-based food options. But the myth that vegetarian food can’t suffice the daily requirements of protein intake is irrelevant. Protein can be found in the most common everyday food choices like bread, cheese, milk, etc. It’s generally quite easy to meet daily protein needs. 

Here are some protein foods for kids along with their protein content per serving:

Protein-rich Foods for Kids Serving Protein (grams)
Milk  1 cup  8
Cheese 28-30 grams 5-7
Nuts  28-30 grams 3-6
Greek Yogurt  1 cup 18-22
Yogurt  1 cup 12-14
Cottage Cheese 100 grams 12.49
Firm Silken Tofu  1 Slice 5.8
Beans (kidney, pinto, lima, etc.) ½ cup  7-9
Peanut Butter 2 tablespoons 7-8
Quinoa Cooked  1 cup 8.14
Edamame 1 cup 18.46
Lentils 1 cup 17.86
Chickpeas 1 cup  14.53
Green Peas 1 cup 8.58
Brussels Sprouts 1 cup 5.64
Chia Seeds 28 grams  4.69
Potatoes 1 medium size 4.55
Asparagus 1 cup  4.32
Broccoli 1 medium size 4.28 
Spinach  1 cup  4.8
Sweet Corn 1 cup  4.7
Mushrooms 1 cup 4

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With all these assorted protein food choices for kids, parents of high-school or teen athletes should make sure they consume protein foods spread over meals throughout the day.

Building muscle strength in teen athletes with Protein

Protein alone cannot build muscle, yet protein foods for kids with high sports activity are fairly important. During workouts and training, such as running or strength training, some muscle cells tend to break down. Protein from food helps repair this damage from exercising and aids in building up more muscle while providing strength to the muscles.

While protein for kids is essential for building new muscles, an optimal or balanced intake of protein is very important. Consuming excess protein may convert to excess calories, usually stored in the form of fat. Lack of protein or consuming lesser than required protein means your body needs to supply it on its own, resulting in muscle breakdown and loss. A balanced protein-rich diet will enable your body to use protein as a calorie source and store it to build and repair muscles when needed.

Add Protein For Children In Every Meal

Teen athletes, with their hyperactive lifestyle, need to ascertain that they add protein-rich foods to every meal in the day. Athlete kids must at least have 5-6 meals a day in moderate portions. This will ensure the fulfilment of the daily requirements of protein from protein foods for kids as per their body weight. 

For example, a breakfast meal including a glass of Bournvita milk, some nuts, and cheese-tomato toast would provide a good amount of protein at the start of the day. Similarly, a lunch meal with beans or lentils with rice and some yogurt will do the same. Snacking can be done 2 times a day with options like a cup of Greek yogurt or peanut butter toast. Dinner can be light and healthy with veggies like broccoli, and spinach along with some cottage cheese or tofu, a bread of choice or quinoa.

Protein Shakes & Bars Vs. Protein-Rich Foods For Kids

Teenagers, of all the people in the world, fall most easily for fads. Teen athletes or adolescents may get inclined to consume a protein supplement such as protein powder or a high-protein drink. But taking supplements is not at all essential to enhance athletic performance. These supplements can also prove to be harmful. Excessive protein intake from supplements can adversely affect the kidneys, and also cause dehydration. They also may contain steroids or other ingredients harmful in the long or short term. 

Here is the myth buster; Teen athletes or children do not require extra protein from supplements like whey protein, protein powder, etc. to meet their need for an adequate daily protein intake. Protein-rich food for kids can easily suffice the need for an optimal amount of protein for kids even with higher nutritional needs. 

Protein for children is the best extracted and safest form of protein food for kids. High-quality protein can be obtained from common everyday foods like dairy products such as milk, Greek yogurt or yogurt, cheese, cottage cheese, soymilk, and other food sources like beans and legumes, lentils, nuts and nut butter. Veggies like spinach, broccoli, etc. are also excellent sources of protein for children.

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The views expressed are that of the expert alone.

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