A parent or caregiver might wonder about supplementing their child’s diet with protein powder. But most of the time, children get enough protein from a balanced diet.
If a child cannot eat a balanced diet, due to a chronic illness or food intolerance, for example, protein supplementation may be helpful. However, too much protein can have negative effects.
This article describes the potential benefits and risks of protein powder for kids. It also looks at how much protein children and teenagers need each day and some other protein sources.
Currently, there is a lack of evidence that protein powder is beneficial for children. A 2015 review notes that many of the studies on this topic are small, involving few participants.
In the review, researchers analyzed the existing evidence of the effects of protein supplementation in children with chronic illnesses, such as cystic fibrosis and pediatric cancer. These often keep children from getting adequate nutrition, due to a lack of appetite or an inability to absorb nutrients.
The researchers found that taking protein powder led to no significant improvements in weight, height, or nutritional status. It is important to note, however, that these findings may not apply to healthy children.
Overall, protein deficiency is uncommon in the United States, and healthy kids usually do not need supplementary protein.
The researchers behind the review recommend using protein powders with caution until more high-quality research has explored its effects.
The amount of protein that a child or teenager needs per day depends on their age, activity level, and sex.
The 2015–2020 dietary guidelines from the Department of Agriculture recommend that babies, children, and teens get following amounts of protein each day:
To determine how much protein a child currently eats, check the labels on groceries, which should list how much protein each serving contains.
When possible, it is best to get protein from whole foods, such as fish, eggs, and plant sources, such as beans. If a child cannot get enough protein this way, discuss protein supplements with a dietitian or pediatrician.
Protein powders usually contain protein from plant or dairy sources. Examples include:
- whey protein, which comes from milk
- pea protein
- brown rice protein
It is important to note that protein powders are not regulated by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), and they can contain a range of additional ingredients. These may be nutritious, such as vitamins and minerals, or less healthful, such as sugar.
If a doctor agrees that a protein powder is necessary, look for one that contains an appropriate amount of protein, factoring in the child’s age and how much they currently consume.
Also, it can help to choose a product that:
- does not contain added sugars
- does not contain high doses of vitamins, minerals, or other nutrients
- contains as few ingredients as possible
Researchers have not studied the specific risks of giving protein powder to children.
However, a 2013 study found that adults who got too much protein from food and supplements for long periods had a higher risk of certain health issues, such as:
Also, the 2015 review also concluded that protein powders may cause unintended adverse effects, such as:
- replacing a child’s regular food
- preventing children from developing healthful eating behaviors
- physical side effects, such as bloating or diarrhea
In addition, an excess of protein can cause problems with absorbing other nutrients.
Overall, it is important to make sure that a child’s diet does not contain too much protein.
There are many sources of protein, such as :
- meat, which also contains vitamin B12, iron, and zinc
- oily fish, which is high in omega-3 fatty acids
- eggs, which contain vitamin D and choline
- some dairy products, which contain calcium
- legumes, such as beans, peas, and lentils, which are high in fiber
- nut butters, which contain vitamin E
- some vegetables, such as broccoli
- quinoa, which contains all the essential amino acids
If a child has a dietary restriction or is just a picky eater, a parent or caregiver can often change or vary their sources of protein. Some examples are below.
Vegetarians and vegans
Children who follow a vegetarian or vegan diet can get their protein from plant sources, such as:
- beans, peas, and lentils
- tofu and soy milk
- seed or nut butters
- quinoa, wild rice, or brown rice
Also, some may eat eggs and high-protein types of dairy, such as cottage cheese.
Children with lactose intolerance may be able to tolerate small amounts of dairy. Overall, however, they can get protein from the same sources as vegans.
Soy milk contains a significant amount of protein, but other non-dairy alternatives, such as almond or cashew milk, usually do not contain much protein.
Making food swaps can be a good way to increase the amount of protein in a child’s diet. Some ideas include swapping:
- sweetened yogurt or desserts for Greek yogurt
- chips or pretzels for roasted chickpeas or nut butter treats
- dips for cottage cheese or hummus
Most children in the U.S. do not need protein supplementation. Too much protein can be harmful, and there is no evidence that protein powder helps kids grow.
Anyone concerned about a child’s nutrition, growth, or weight should talk with a doctor.
If a child cannot get enough protein from food and a doctor recommends supplementation, look for a protein powder that is age-appropriate, with few ingredients and no added sugar.