Can children have protein powder?

We all want what’s best for our kids. Encouraging a healthy lifestyle for our offspring in terms of their diet, exercise and mental wellbeing is extremely important - and hey, if you can get your kids outside and out in nature for some quiet time, then that’s amazing! 

It might not be all sunshine, though. If you are the parent to a particularly picky eater, a child with a metabolic disorder, or a child with a restricted diet, this might lead to concern about your child’s nutritional intake, especially protein. 

We all know that protein is an essential part of our diet - a macronutrient which helps to look after our muscles, bones, skin and much more - and a protein shake might seem like a good solution for giving your child extra protein to supplement their diet. However, children may need less protein than we think, and the majority of children get exactly what they need from their daily diet, so is giving your child a protein shake really worth it? 

How much protein does my child need?

Around 10-30% of your child’s daily calorie intake should come from protein. This ranges depending on age from 13g per day between 1-3 years old, to 52g per day for boys aged 14-18, with girls in the same age bracket requiring slightly less at around 46g. 

Children who are underweight for their age may need extra protein, but in these instances, you should always consult a doctor before introducing a protein supplement into your child’s diet to determine whether there are any underlying issues which require treatment. 

If your child is vegan or vegetarian, there’s a chance that they may consume a little less protein in their diet than children who consume animal products. If this is the case, whole foods such as peanut butter, oatmeal and other protein rich foods can be used to ensure that your child is getting enough protein, instead of opting straight for a protein supplement. 

If your child has a delayed or stunted growth rate, is constantly hungry (although, what child isn’t always hungry for snacks!) or has problems with immunity, they might be lacking in protein. 

Is protein powder safe for kids? 

Well, as is the case with any individual’s nutrition, it depends. Children require less protein than adults, which means that excess protein long term is more likely to cause health implications. They are also less likely to develop a protein deficiency if they have access to a wide range of foods, and are generally healthy. 

In fact, certain studies have shown that too much protein may actually be damaging to a child’s health. This suggests that protein supplements shouldn’t be given to children unless there are some specific criteria met. 

For example, children who have certain medical conditions which affect metabolism, have allergies to foods or have a restricted diet may need to look at nutritional supplementation to remain healthy. However, in these cases, the type of supplement is likely to be suggested by a doctor. If a doctor has advised that your child needs a nutritional supplement, it is vital to ensure that you follow their instructions in what to look for. 

There is likely to be very little benefit in giving your child protein shakes unless they have been prescribed it. Remember, before you reach for the protein powder it is always worth providing more protein rich whole foods. You could even boost your child’s protein intake with different kinds of fruit!

Would there be any side effects? 

Firstly, if you give a protein supplement to a child who doesn’t need one, they are likely to experience weight gain from the extra calories and sugars that have been introduced into their systems. Even healthy, active children might find themselves gaining weight with excess protein intake. 

Too much protein has the potential to cause kidney stones to develop, which can damage the organs themselves and cause dehydration, as the kidneys have to work harder. The liver too, needs to work harder to process the nitrogen build-up caused by excess protein, which can put a strain on this vital organ. 

Then, we need to consider that supplements are often not as heavily regulated as foods, which means that they can contain high levels of heavy metals, herbicides and pesticides. These can cause many health problems in the long term, so we should always look for supplements which are tested to ensure their purity. Some protein powders and supplements also contain bulking agents, fillers and artificial ingredients which are not healthy. 

Younger children may lose interest in trying new foods and embracing their whole foods diet if they become used to having protein shakes in everyday life. This means that they will lose out on the benefits of a whole foods diet such as certain live cultures and enzymes which cannot be replicated by a shake. 

What to look for in a protein shake for children: 

If it has been recommended that you supplement your child’s protein intake with a shake, there are a few things to remember when looking for the perfect product: 

  1. Protein powders are generally designed for adult consumption, and adults have different dietary needs. 
  2. Make sure the protein levels in the product that you choose are not more than your child’s body is capable of processing in a day.
  3. If a protein powder contains a whole host of ingredients, chances are that some of them will be artificial. Look for a protein powder which only contains natural ingredients to avoid any unnecessary additives. 
  4. Avoid artificial sugars and sweeteners. These can cause other health issues, so it is beneficial to avoid them wherever possible! 
  5. Using a plant-based protein powder is less likely to cause cramps, bloating and gas (common side effects of lactose intolerance) if given to children. 

So there you have it - children are unlikely to benefit from protein supplements unless they have very specific needs, in which case, you should be advised by your doctor.