The power of protein
While protein is essential for a young athlete’s growth and development, it can be tricky figuring out the healthiest options and the right amounts. Here’s your guide to understanding everything you need to know about this key nutrient.
By Jill Castle, MS, RDN
Everywhere you turn, especially in the sports world, you hear about protein: trendy high protein bars and supplements, athletes adding protein to shakes, and the association of more power, endurance and bulk with added protein. Parents and coaches have heard the protein message loud and clear: More protein is better!
But is it? Is extra protein magical, a trendy fad in the youth sports landscape, or a dangerous practice for young athletes?
Important nutrient for growth
For growing athletes, protein is a critical nutrient for growth and development, helping build muscle and create new tissue. That’s why protein is commonly referred to as a building block. When children and teens don’t get enough protein, poor growth and delayed development can be seen.
For athletes, protein plays an added role in muscle repair. Naturally, during athletic activity, muscle tissue is broken down and rebuilt during periods of rest. Because young athletes are growing, building, breaking down and repairing muscle, you can see that protein is an important part of the nutrition equation.
How much protein do young athletes need?
Children and teens need about 0.4 to 0.5 grams of protein per pound of body weight to meet their minimum protein requirements for growth. Young athletes need slightly more protein when beginning a new sport or season due to the initial muscle breakdown and repair, which equates to around 0.5 to 0.7 grams of protein per pound of body weight. The elite, trained athlete needs about 0.6 to 0.7 grams of protein per pound per day, and some young athletes, depending on their sport, may need even more, up to 0.7 to 1.0 grams of protein per pound, to maintain their protein status.
Most kids and teens eat enough protein during the day without giving it much thought. In fact, they consume two to three times the Recommended Dietary Allowance (RDA) for protein, according to data from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES).
Growing athletes meet their protein needs with regular food consumption patterns also. In just two servings of lean protein (or a total of 6 ounces per day), an athlete’s minimum protein requirements can be met.
What foods contain protein?
Food sources of high quality protein include meats such as poultry and beef; fish; eggs; dairy and non-dairy substitutes such as milk, yogurt, yogurt drinks, soy milk, cheese and cottage cheese; beans and legumes such as edamame, black, kidney, white, pinto, garbanzo and lentils; nuts and nut butters; and high protein grains such as quinoa. Other foods such as grains and vegetables contain small amounts of protein, which contribute to the overall amounts eaten.
Powdered protein, high protein shakes and protein bars have not been shown to be beneficial in growing athletes, and the general consensus is these are not needed.
The problem with protein
Even though most young athletes get enough protein, there continues to be a push for more. In a recent study from the University of Minnesota, 35 percent of 14-year-old boys and 21 percent of girls of the same age were using protein powder supplements to enhance musculature or their athletic performance.
The downsides of too much protein in the diet are many: extra calories and potential weight gain, fat deposition and dehydration. What is often misunderstood is that more protein, beyond the body’s requirements, means more calories, which can lead to fat accumulation and weight gain. Too much protein can also contribute to dehydration.
Because of these risks, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) advises against the regular use of protein-enhanced foods and beverages with young athletes. Rather, eating real food sources of protein in a well-balanced diet throughout the day is the goal.
Timing is everything
While protein is essential to the diet, the magic of protein for athletes happens when it is eaten, or what researchers in sports nutrition call nutrient timing. The body uses protein and performs best when protein is spaced evenly throughout the day. Many athletes skimp on morning and noontime protein, leaving the load of intake to the end of the day.
Eating a source of protein after a prolonged session of exercise can efficiently shuttle amino acids into the muscle so that repair of damage can begin. Athletes should consume protein sources (and carbohydrate) within 30 to 45 minutes after prolonged workouts. Good options are eight to 12 ounces of low fat milk or chocolate milk; 1 cup of fruit smoothie made with yogurt or non-dairy soymilk (homemade or commercial); peanut butter on one slice of whole wheat bread; four or five peanut butter crackers; or nuts and dried fruit. When food isn’t available, a protein-containing sports drink is suitable.
Protein is essential for the athlete, but most can meet their daily requirements easily. Adding extra is not needed and can even prove harmful to the growing athlete in certain situations.
Jill Castle, MS, RDN is a childhood nutrition expert and co-author of Fearless Feeding: How to Raise Healthy Eaters from High Chair to High School (www.fearlessfeeding.com). She is the creator of Just The Right Byte (www.justtherightbyte.com), and is working on her next book for young athletes, called Eat, Compete & Grow. She lives with her husband and four children in New Canaan, CT. Questions? Contact her at Jill@JillCastle.com
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