Protein for the Growing Athlete

 

By Jill Castle, MS, RDN

Do you believe protein is the “magic pill” of sports nutrition or are you just “making ends meet,” trying to get enough protein in your young athlete’s diet? Boasting benefits like enhanced sports performance, muscle gain and improved post-event recovery, protein seems to have magical powers, and young athletes are looking for more.

Protein is a Necessary Part of Every Child’s Diet.

Protein is fundamental for organ function, new tissue development, and the repair of muscle damage. All children need protein to stay healthy and grow.

The average child, age 9-13 years, needs about 0.5 grams of protein per pound of body weight. Youth athletes have a slightly higher protein requirement and need about 0.5-0.7 grams per pound of body weight, depending on their age and gender.

Most young athletes meet or exceed their protein needs without trouble and few are lacking this nutrient. In fact, if a young ahtlete’s energy needs are met throughout the day with a balanced diet, it’s most likely that protein requirements will be met as well.

Food sources of protein include meats such as poultry and red meats; fish; eggs; dairy products such as milk, yogurt, yogurt drinks, cheese and cottage cheese; legumes such as edamame, black, kidney, white, pinto and garbanzo beans; nuts and nut butters; and high protein grains such as quinoa.

Small amounts of protein are also found in cereal, crackers, bread and bread products, as well as other processed foods.

Are Protein Supplements Needed?

Some young athletes are adding extra protein sources such as protein-enhanced energy drinks, energy bars and supplemental powders to their diet with the impression that it will build more muscle tissue, make them stronger, enhance recovery from training, and even improve their overall athletic performance.

The truth is, in young athletes, there isn’t any scientific proof that supplemental types of protein will have such effects.

According to the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), the regular use of protein-enhanced foods and beverages is not recommended for young athletes. Rather, eating real food sources of protein in a well-balanced diet is the name of the game.

The AAP also promotes the use of natural protein foods for recovery from prolonged vigorous exercise, such as low fat milk.  When food sources are not available, a protein-containing sports drink may be suitable.

Are there negative effects of getting too much protein?

Because athletes are probably already getting enough protein in their daily food diet, adding extra in the form of powders, bars and shakes can cause problems. Excess protein intake may be dangerous for the young athlete, leading to dehydration, calcium losses in the urine, weight gain, and stress on the liver and kidneys.

Additionally, if the focus is on eating a high protein diet, the athlete may miss out on enough carbohydrate for training and racing, which can negatively impact athletic performance.

3 Tips for getting “real food” protein in the young athlete’s diet:

Eat protein sources at each meal. An egg and milk for breakfast; peanut butter on a sandwich and yogurt at lunch; and lean meat and milk at dinner are ways to add natural protein to the diet.

Eat protein with snacks. Fruit and cheese kabobs; peanut butter crackers; nuts and dried fruit; and hummus with pita chips are all healthy snacks for the young athlete. Including protein at snack-time will help keep blood sugars normal, better target overall nutrition needs, and reign in excess hunger before meals.

Eat food to recover from long training sessions. Plain or flavored low fat milk, low fat yogurt or a nut-based trail mix are examples of good protein-rich recovery foods.

Jill Castle, MS, RDN is a childhood nutrition expert and author of Eat Like a Champion: Performance Nutrition for Your Young Athlete. She lives with her husband and four children in New Canaan, CT. For more about Jill, go to www.JillCastle.com.

 

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