An issue that is frequently misunderstood by parents is exactly how much protein children need everyday and where they can get it from. One of the most common concerns I hear from parents of fussy or picky eaters is that they’re not getting enough protein. As we go through their child’s diet, they are often surprised to find that their protein intake is fine.
One of the reasons for this is that our bodies actually don’t need that much protein. Even in children that are growing rapidly, it’s not hard to meet their requirements. We also get protein from sources other than meat which many people are unaware of. For example breads and cereals, whilst usually recognised as a source of carbohydrate, also contain protein. Whilst some of these sources do not contain a complete range of amino acids (the building blocks of protein) when eaten as part of a balanced diet, overall protein intake will be sufficient. Dairy is a very significant source of protein for young children. I always ensure there are adequate alternative sources if we need to avoid dairy for some reason (eg the child has an allergy).
So how much protein do children actually need and where can they get it from? Below I’ve included a pictorial to give you an example of how easily a child’s protein requirements are met.
Toddlers 1 – 3 yrs (between 10 – 15kg): 11g – 16g protein per day
1 shredded wheat biscuit without milk 2g
1/2 Cob of corn 2g 1 small cup of milk(200ml) 8g
Slice of cheese 4g
Children 4 – 8yrs (16 – 26kg): 15 – 24g protein per day
1 cheese sandwich 12g 200g tub of yoghurt 6g 1/2 cup broccoli 4g
Children 9 – 13yrs (29kg – 46k): 29 – 46g protein per day
3 weetbix with milk 14g 1 banana 1.5g 4 vita wheat crackers with cheese 7g Small tin of tuna 16g
The typical Australian diet usually provides most children with more protein than their bodies require (in fact a recent Melbourne based study (InFANT) found that very young children (aged 9 months to 5 years) protein intake from diet alone was 2-3 times higher than age appropriate Australian recommendations. Occasionally we see children who’s growth is faltering and part of our management plan is to try a high protein and energy diet to get them moving again. In these situations we will use these diets on a short term basis until a medically agreed upon target is achieved.
What is concerning me as a paediatric dietitian is a trend I’ve noticed on social media to use protein powders and shakes in children, that have been designed for use by adults. As our obesity rates have risen and as a nation we have become more focused on health, there has been an explosion of supplements many of them protein based drinks, powders and bars.
There is evidence that in adults a diet higher in protein can be beneficial for weight loss, particularly in promoting satiety after a meal. We do not have this same evidence in children. The by products of protein break down are filtered out by our kidneys. The more protein we eat, the harder our kidneys work getting rid of the waste. The concern here is that if our kidneys are placed under long term strain, then the chance of developing chronic kidney disease later in life might be increased. Research in adults has suggested that high protein diets are probably fine if your kidney function is normal. We don’t have this data for children. If children are fed these exceedingly high protein intakes for years as their kidney function develops and matures, what is the long term effect? Most of these protein based shakes, powders etc provide around 20g of protein per serve. For your average 10 – 15kg toddler, that means they are receiving 1.3 g – 2g protein/kg/day before you’ve even factored in any food. When we treat children who’s growth is faltering or are malnourished, as dietitians, we don’t usually exceed 2g protein/kg/day and this is on a short term basis only. My feeling is that it would be quite possible for children to be receiving as much as 3g protein/kg/day if they are regularly using adult based protein supplements. The other issue here is that many of these protein based shakes will also be high in added vitamins and minerals and there is the real possibility of exceeding the upper safe limit for these nutrients as well.
If you are concerned about your child’s diet, a children’s based supplement will always be a wiser choice than something designed for adults (note – even when a product claims to be made of all natural sources as many of these protein powders and alike do, it does not mean it’s safe for children). As a dietitian I always prefer to look for food based ways to address any nutritional concerns, but sometimes we do have to use supplements. At these times I prefer to use a multivitamin and mineral supplement as most shake type supplements usually take the child’s appetite away and can hinder the progress of expanding a child’s diet.
I’ve written more about this here. If you just want to provide a little boost to your child’s nutrition, a simple smoothie made with your preferred milk fortified with a handful of nuts (I like using raw cashews) or chia seeds and some fruit or steamed vegetables, will go long way to not only adding extra protein but also iron, zinc, phosphorus, vitamin C and fibre.
Why not try my choice mint smoothie if you’re looking for something to boost your child’s nutrition? You can get the recipe here.