How much protein does my child need? Does it vary by age?
This is an excellent question and one that is asked by many parents. Protein is essential for good health, since it serves as the major structural component of all cells in the body. It helps to build muscle, connective tissue, and hair, and functions as enzymes and some hormones. If protein intake is extremely low, you may see lack of growth, poor muscle tone, thin hair, edema, and skin lesions. Protein deficiency is rare in developed countries (unless it is a result of chronic illness or disease) since sources of dietary protein are abundant in our diets. In fact, most Americans consume twice the minimum requirement of protein each day.
Children actually need more protein per pound of body weight than adults because they are in a stage of growth and development during infancy, childhood, and adolescence.
The National Academies of Science, Engineering, and Medicine have established these dietary reference intakes (DRIs) based on the recommended daily allowances (RDAs) for protein during childhood:
Infants (0-12 months): 9-11 grams (1.5 grams per kilogram body weight)
Children (1-3 years): 13 grams (1.1 grams per kilogram body weight)
Children (4-8 years): 19 grams (0.95 grams per kilogram body weight)
Children (9-13 years): 34 grams (0.95 grams per kilogram body weight)
Teen Boys (14-18 years): 52 grams (0.85 grams per kilogram body weight)
Teen Girls (14-18 years): 46 grams (0.85 grams per kilogram body weight)
(2.2 pounds = 1 kilogram body weight)
Keep in mind that these are minimum requirements to prevent malnutrition. The more active your child is, the more protein he or she will require to support muscle growth and development. The best dietary sources of protein include lean meats, seafood, dairy products, eggs, whole grains, nuts, beans, and vegetables. While adequate protein is important for growth and development, too much protein can also have health consequences. Excessive protein intake can contribute to dehydration, bone loss, and other serious medical issues, such as kidney damage.
What about protein supplements (powders, bars, and shakes)? The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) discourages the use of protein supplements and other performance enhancing supplements, encouraging children to meet their protein needs through a balanced diet. Long-term studies on the safety of protein supplements have not been conducted on children under 18, and the AAP has raised concerns about contamination of heavy metals in protein supplements.
For teens who are looking to build muscle, they should incorporate a supervised exercise program that includes cardiovascular exercise, resistance training, and flexibility exercises combined with a balanced diet consisting of high-quality protein sources.
If your child needs nutritional guidance on how to get adequate protein, seek the advice of your healthcare provider or registered dietitian.
You should know: The answer above provides general health information that is not intended to replace medical advice or treatment recommendations from a qualified healthcare professional.
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