Protein drinks are widely consumed by adult athletes to help improve their performance as they work to refuel their muscles after an intensive workout. But while professional endurance athletes may need to consume higher levels of protein than others to redress the balance in their body, most of us do not need this ‘boost’ (especially not young children) and will be able to get our recommended daily amount of protein in normal meals throughout the day.
So is it suitable for an athlete as young as 10 years old to be given protein drinks? Dieticians would suggest that protein supplements in the form of protein powders, shakes and other drinks should only be offered to young children if there is a specific medical need for it. For example, children who are dangerously underweight or fussy eaters who may not be getting their recommended amount of protein can benefit from protein drinks.
Even for kids who may require extra protein in their diet, however, the general consensus from dieticians and pediatricians is that it is far healthier for children to get their protein from real food. If your child athlete has recently developed an interest in developing their muscle mass and strength as a result of excelling in their favorite sport, it will be far better for them to get their extra protein boost from meals instead of drinks or powders. Read on to find out why this is best and the dangers that can lurk in supposedly ‘healthy’ protein supplements.
The Real Protein Needs of a 10 Year Old
The reason many young athletes may find the idea of taking protein drinks appealing is that they believe taking extra protein will make them stronger and therefore better able to compete in their chosen sport, but this is simply not true. According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, “protein supplements have not been shown to enhance muscle development, strength, or endurance.” The best way to provide athletic children with extra protein in their diet is the traditional way – in a well balanced diet of meals and protein-filled snacks.
A 10 year old’s daily protein needs are actually less than you may think and what’s more, their recommended daily quota of protein can be easily obtained through a normal diet of real food versus protein drinks. According to the latest Dietary Guidelines for Americans, boys aged between 9 and 13 should be getting 5-6.5 ounces of daily protein and for girls aged 9 to 13, this works out to 4-6 ounces. In other words, 10 year old athletic kids only need roughly 34 grams of protein in their diet and this can be achieved in real foods such as:
- 1 large egg (6g of protein)
- 2 slices of white bread (4g of protein)
- 1 cup of milk/soy milk (8g of protein)
- Canned tuna (16 grams)
Any more daily protein than this is largely unnecessary in their diet. In fact, according to Dietitian and Specialist in Pediatrics, Lara Field, there is such thing as too much protein for kids: “Yes, protein is required to build and maintain and repair tissues in our body. However, like carbohydrates and fats, protein contains calories, and the calories we don’t need will be stored as fat.” Weight gain in young children is just one of many dangerous effects of unnecessary protein, especially in the form of unnatural, chemical supplements. We’ve explored some of the other dangers below…
The Dangers of Giving Young Children Protein Drinks
As much as it might seem like giving your child extra protein will benefit them, it can actually cause long-term health problems. In addition to weight gain, your 10 year old could also suffer from the following health complications if they use protein supplements such as drinks and powders on top of their recommended protein allowance:
1. Damage to Organs
It might seem unfathomable that too much protein could actually damage your child’s organs, but this is a reality if their bodies are struggling to process higher than normal levels of protein. When excess protein added by supplements overwhelms a child’s kidneys, the kidneys work much harder to filter out waste products. As well as putting your child at risk of dehydration over time, all this added protein can increase their rate of calcium excretion, which can lead to kidney stones – a painful condition for most adults and certainly an affliction you would not wish upon a child.
Besides causing kidney damage, the unnecessary addition of protein drinks to their diet can also cause problems for the liver and potentially, the whole body. Continually processing high levels of protein can create nitrogen, and as more and more nitrogen is created in the liver, the body finds it difficult to not only process waste and toxins, but can struggle to break down important nutrients.
2. A Weakened Immune System
Children have strong immune systems – it’s why they are able to fight off so many infections and diseases as they grow – but introducing foreign substances like protein powders and other supplements into their body can take its toll and eventually cause their immune systems to grow weaker. Since protein supplements such as powders, drinks and related products are not currently recognized by the FDA (The Food and Drug Administration), not all protein supplement packaging will label all of its ingredients, so when you give your child certain protein drinks, you can never be 100 percent sure as to what substances or stimulants your child could be consuming.
Pediatrician Adriane Lioudis encourages young children to “eat the rainbow” in order to build and maintain a healthy immune system, and this means surrounding your child with different varieties of protein in meal form such as fish, poultry, eggs etc, as well as varied fruit and veg choices. Protein is one of the most important food groups for kids and it is exactly this that can help, not hinder their immune system – food groups, not supplements.
When is Extra Protein Necessary for Children?
There are certain instances in which a pediatrician or nutrition specialist may recommend protein supplements for children, but these are normally only prescribed for medical reasons and are not intended to be a permanent solution to a child’s health issue. Below are some examples of when protein drinks may actually be necessary for your 10 year old…
- If they are underweight – if your child struggles to put on weight and is considered to be far below the average weight for a child their age, your child’s pediatrician may recommend protein shakes to replace lost protein. Protein drinks should never be administered without consulting a medical professional though, so don’t simply give them protein drinks at home to solve their weight issues. As we mentioned earlier, these supplement products may sometimes have undisclosed ingredients and not every store bought protein drink will guarantee the same benefits.
- If they are vegan or vegetarian – Nutrition specialist Diana Schnee reveals that children who don’t include meat in their diet typically need “10 to 15 percent more protein intake to get the same benefits as meat eaters.” Parents of vegetarian or vegan kids need to ensure they have a protein-rich diet in place of meat to maintain healthy protein levels. If they struggle, this is when (and only when) protein drinks and other supplements may be necessary.
- If they are ‘fussy eaters’ – if your child athlete is averse to trying new foods outside their comfort zone, protein drinks could be a way to replace low protein levels. But as dieticians recommend, real food should always be your first choice. So what to do with a picky eater? Try disguising ‘unwanted’ fruit and veg combinations in smoothies – you can take the edge off bitter or sour tastes by adding honey and frozen yogurt for sweetness and a more pleasing texture. Your young athlete will come to learn that all the best sports icons throughout history relied on a varied diet to give them energy and be the best they could, but smoothies are a steady way to introduce them to a “rainbow diet.”
When Will My Child be Ready for Protein Drinks?
Nutritionist Diana Schnee reveals that “it is a myth that children who are more active need more protein to fuel their bodies.” Only elite grown athletes, Schnee recommends, should be adding protein to their diets, so no matter how ambitious your athletic 10 year old is, they should wait until they are 18 years or older before using protein drinks and other supplements to refuel their body. “Child athletes may be drawn to protein supplements after a workout, but kids need a combination of protein and carbs to rebuild muscle broken down during a workout. And it’s always best for them to eat a meal.”
In the meantime, a great athlete diet for active kids should be introduced into their daily meals. Sports dietician at the Baylor College of Medicine Roberta Anding suggests starting easy with alternative breakfast ideas, such as: “nut butter on whole grain toast or lean ham and cheese on a whole-grain bagel.” And perhaps on days when you’re really in a rush for sports practice, even just a piece of fruit washed down with a large glass of skimmed or soya milk will give your young athlete bundles of energy and a great start to the daily protein he or she needs – the natural way.