This is probably the most common conversation about nutrition between dietitians and parents of young athletes. How much protein does your child actually need? It’s not as much as you think.
What is Protein and Why Is It Important?
Let’s first distinguish between dietary protein and proteins in the body. Dietary protein is your chicken, fish, beef, etc. Those dietary proteins are broken down into individual amino acids through digestion and are built back up in the body to form proteins that help your child’s body function.
One of those functions of protein is to provide structure for muscle mass – this is what most parents are thinking about when they want to increase the dietary protein in their child’s diet. Not so fast, mom and dad, your child may not need any extra protein – let’s find out if they do.
Just because you’re eating protein, doesn’t mean you’re building muscle. To build muscle, you also have to do some sort of exercise. During exercise, muscles do get damaged. Proteins are important to repair and rebuild those muscles. Let’s also remember that muscle growth is also a result of hormones, which you have no control over.
How Much Do My Kids Need?
Young athletes do need more protein than non-athletes, but not as much as you think. Your first thought should be to consider which sport your child is active in. Most sports do a combination of cardiovascular exercise and strength training in addition to their sport. So, how active are they and it is muscle strengthening exercise?
Your next consideration is to determine which stage of development your child is in. Are they done growing, are they still pre-puberty? Smaller children who have not started puberty do not have the same protein needs, as those who in active growth or those children who have reached their adult height.
Okay, so what’s a parent to do? Go with weight. That means you’re doing some math (and who said you’d never need to do math again?)
For young athletes, calculate 0.45-0.6 grams of protein per pound of their body weight. If their sport is light on muscle building, go for the lower range. For those in high intensity sports, aim for the higher range.
80 pound child: 36 – 48 grams of protein per day
100 pound child: 45 – 60 grams of protein per day
120 pound child: 54 – 72 grams of protein per day
Timing of Protein
Do you need to worry about the timing of protein with your young athlete? The answer is yes and no. I know, helpful, right?
If you have a very young child and you just want to make sure they are getting enough protein to meet their needs – the goal is always to balance protein breakdown with muscle repair – just feed them a healthy balanced diet.
If you have an older athlete that is wanting to build muscle, always, always, always choose food first. Supplements are not necessary and can be dangerous for young bodies. When timing protein, there is research pointing to eating 20 grams of protein following exercise to help your athlete maintain and build muscle.
So, your timing of meals would look something like this for a 100-120 pound athlete with afternoon practice:
Breakfast: 10 grams protein
Lunch: 20 grams protein
Snack: 5-10 grams protein
Snack: 5-10 grams protein
Dinner (within 2 hours after practice) 20 grams protein
How Much Protein In Foods
33 grams – 4 ounces chicken breast
26 grams – 4 ounces beef
14 grams (approximately) – 5 ounces Greek yogurt
8 grams – 1 cup milk
8 grams – 2 tablespoons nut butters
6 grams – 1 egg
6 grams – 1 ounce nuts
How Much Is Too Much?
Most kids get more protein than they need. Because of this, finding a way to fit in extra protein is usually not necessary, so don’t sweat it.
If you’re struggling and aren’t sure if your child is getting what they need, it never hurts to speak with a registered dietitian who can evaluate the current diet, calculate individual protein needs, and give suggestions on how to structure the diet for the success of your athlete.
The truth is, your child athlete is probably getting all of the protein they need. If they are growing, start paying attention to how much they are eating and adjust accordingly to the numbers above. Also, if their workouts start to get more strenuous, you may want to add in an extra protein snack. Above all, talk with your athlete about which foods fuel their body and how to eat a healthy diet everyday.