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Protein Powder For Kids: Safety, Types And Possible Side Effects

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Protein powders are supplements manufactured from plant and animal protein. These nutritional supplements may also contain other additives, such as sugar, artificial flavors, thickeners, multi-vitamins, and multi-minerals (1). Adults use them for weight gain and muscle development. However, its use among children is usually recommended only to fill nutritional gaps.

Healthy children on a well-balanced diet with various high-protein foods seldom need protein powder unless prescribed by a doctor. In this post, we tell you about the uses of protein powders for kids, their various types, and if they are safe.

Is Protein Powder Safe For Children?

Protein powders are dietary supplements that do not undergo the US Food and Drug Administration’s (US FDA) testing, regulation, and approval process, unlike prescription drugs (2). The quality and safety of these supplements are left up to the manufacturers to evaluate.

According to the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), supplements can be susceptible to contamination, safety problems, and quality issues, even when purchased from a reliable source (1). Also, the safety and long-term effects of protein supplements is still under research and not completely known. Therefore, if you wish your child to have protein powder, then seek a pediatrician’s advice. Meanwhile, you may want to try these high protein snacks.

How Much Protein Do Children Need?

According to the Dietary Guidelines For Americans (2015-2020), children’s protein requirement depends on their age, sex, and activity. The following are the optimum recommended dietary allowance values for children and teens of various age groups (3).

Age (years)RDA (g/day)
1 to 313
4 to 819
9 to 1334
14 to 18 (girls)46
14 to 18 (boys)52

Source:  Dietary Guidelines For Americans 2015-2020

Adding a variety of protein-rich foods in your child’s daily diet can help maintain optimum intake. Most animal-based foods are a rich source of complete protein with all essential amino acids (1). Some of the good animal sources of protein are turkey, chicken, fish, eggs, milk, cheese, and lean beef (2).

There are several vital plant-based protein sources for children on a vegetarian or vegan diet. Below is a list of plant foods with approximate protein quantities per serving (4).

Protein-rich Plant Foods
FoodServingCaloriesProtein (g)
Legumes (cooked)
Lentils½ cup1019
Black Beans½ cup1148
Pinto Beans½ cup1238
Red Kidney Beans½ cup1128
Black-eyed Peas½ cup1007
Chickpeas½ cup1347
Soy Foods
Tempeh½ cup16016
Veggie burger (average)*1- 70 gram12411
Tofu*½ cup9410
Soymilk*1 cup1328
Vegetables
Peas, cooked½ cup675
Artichoke, cooked1 medium1004
Spinach, cooked½ cup413
Grains
Kamut½ cup1266
Wheat Berries½ cup1516
Quinoa½ cup1114
Oatmeal½ cup793
Seeds
Pumpkin Seeds1 ounce1599
Flax Seeds1 ounce1406
Sunflower Seeds1 ounce1406
Chia Seeds1 ounce1385
Nuts
Peanut Butter2 tablespoon1887
Almonds1 ounce1636
Pistachios1 ounce1606
Hazelnuts1 ounce1814
Walnuts1 ounce1854

Source: Academy of Nutrition And Dietetics

When Is Extra Protein Needed For Children?

Most children and adolescents in the US consume 1.5 to three times their daily recommended intakes (DRIs) for protein (5), suggesting sufficient protein consumption to meet the nutrient need. However, the protein requirement could increase in certain situations.

  1. Increased physical activity: The AAP recommends consuming two ounces of protein foods for every 1000 calories burned (6). An increase in calorie needs due to increased physical activity, such as in the case of an athletic child, demands an increase in protein intake.
  1. Poor weight gain: Approximately four percent of children and teens in the US are underweight (7). Pediatricians suggest increasing protein intake through food for gaining weight. Supplemental protein intake may be considered when dietary protein intake fails to suffice the weight gain.
  1. Metabolic issues: Certain metabolic conditions causing protein catabolism or protein wastage may require increased protein consumption. A pediatrician may recommend protein powders after evaluating the child’s condition and dietary habits.

Pediatricians generally recommend a well-balanced, high-protein diet to meet the increased protein needs. The use of protein powder is advised after a thorough evaluation of the need and contemplation of alternatives.

What Are The Side Effects Of Protein Powder For Children?

The consumption of protein powder by a child/teen without pediatric guidance may lead to the following side effects (1) (8) (9).

  1. Gastrointestinal disturbances: Protein powders may lead to digestion-related issues, such as bloating, gas, flatulence, diarrhea, and stomachache, in sensitive individuals. Children who are lactose intolerant may experience these symptoms on the consumption of whey or casein protein-based protein powder.
  1. Loss of nutrition: Replacing protein-rich food with protein powders could cause the child to lose out on other nutrients present in protein-rich foods. In the long-term, it may increase the risk of nutritional deficiencies.
  1. Unwanted weight gain: Protein powders may have a high sugar content that provides surplus calories. If the child does not have requisite calorie burnout to balance the intake, then there is a risk of weight gain. Some protein powders contain the compound creatine, which may cause weight gain as a side effect.
  1. Kidney stones: Sustained excess consumption of protein powder may strain the kidneys due to the accumulation of by-products in the blood (10). In the long run, it might increase the risk of kidney stones (11).

Protein powders may also contain additives and other compounds that adversely affect a child’s health.

What Are The Different Types Of Protein Powders?

There are several types of plant and animal protein-based powders available over the counter. Some of the common ones are discussed here.

  1. Whey protein: Whey is a high-quality milk protein, which contains essential branched-chain amino acids (BCAAs). It has a high biological value (BV) of 104, making the protein easily digestible and optimally bioavailable for the body. It can support muscle protein synthesis and promote growth (12) (13).
    Overconsumption of whey protein powder may lead to side effects, such as diarrhea, bloating, nausea, reduced appetite, fatigue, and headache (14).
  1. Soy protein: The soy product is manufactured by isolating soy protein from soybeans. The quality of soy protein and its ability to support muscle protein synthesis is relatively lower than animal protein (15) (16). But soy protein can be safely consumed by most individuals, including those with dairy allergy and lactose intolerance.

Children and teens are recommended to consume soy products, such as tofu, tempeh, and miso, in their diet in moderate amounts. Overconsumption of soy protein may lead to gastrointestinal disturbances. Excess soy protein may increase the risk of Kawasaki disease in young children with a genetic predisposition to the disease (17).

  1. Casein: It is a slow-digesting, high-quality milk protein with a similar effect on muscle protein synthesis as whey. The slow-digesting nature of casein leads to significant protein accretion in the long run.

Children and teens with dairy allergy or lactose intolerance should consume whey or casein after doctor consultation. It is good to consult a doctor before serving soy protein, especially if the child has a family history of Kawasaki disease.

How To Choose Protein Powders For Kids?

Consult a pediatrician before picking a protein powder for your child/teen. You may use the following steps to select the best product.

  1. Buy organic, GMP-certified protein powder to ensure good manufacturing quality.
  1. Select a product suitable for your child/teen’s age. Several protein powders available over the counter are only for adults or specifically for athletes.
  1. Read the product label carefully and look for protein level information in the nutrition fact sheet to know the amount of protein per scoop.
  1. Check the ingredient list and select a product with one or fewer ingredients. Also, check if the product has one protein type or a mix, like whey and casein protein.
  1. Avoid products with additives, like sugar or artificial sweeteners, such as sucralose and maltodextrin.

Protein powder is usually unnecessary in healthy children/teens since they can receive adequate protein from foods within a well-balanced diet. Children who are into intense athletics or strength training may require additional protein supplementation. Speak to your child’s pediatrician or pediatric nutritionist to ensure you pick a safe protein powder for your child.

References:

1. The hidden dangers of protein powders; Health Harvard Publishing
2. Nutrition and Supplement Use; Healthy Children; AAP
3. Appendix 7. Nutritional Goals for Age-Sex Groups Based on Dietary Reference Intakes and Dietary Guidelines Recommendations; Dietary Guidelines For Americans2015-2020
4. Protein in Vegetarian and Vegan Diets; Academy of Nutrition And Dietetics
5. Nutrition Issues and Concerns; Bright Futures; AAP
6. Energy In: Recommended Food & Drink Amounts for Children; Healthy Children; AAP
7. Safe Weight Gain Tips for Underweight Kids; Eat Right; Academy of Nutrition And Dietetics
8. Are protein shakes healthy?; Intermountain Healthcare
9. The Risks of Protein Products & Nutritional Supplements; UnityPoint
10. Nutrition and Early Kidney Disease; National Kidney Foundation
11. Zeynep Gul and Manoj Monga; Medical and Dietary Therapy for Kidney Stone Prevention; NCBI
12. Jay R. Hoffman and Michael J. Falvo; Protein – Which is Best?; NCBI
13. Stuart M Phillips et al.; The Role of Milk- and Soy-Based Protein in Support of Muscle Protein Synthesis and Muscle Protein Accretion in Young and Elderly Persons; Researchgate
14. Pradyut Kumar Mohanty, Nikhil Nishant, and Shilpa Luthra, Whey Protein Nutritional Power House of Future; International Journal of Advanced Biological and Biomedical Research
15. Stuart M Phillips et al.; The Role of Milk- and Soy-Based Protein in Support of Muscle Protein Synthesis and Muscle Protein Accretion in Young and Elderly Persons; Researchgate
16. Stefan H. M. Gorissen et al.; Protein content and amino acid composition of commercially available plant-based protein isolates; NCBI
17. Children’s Soy Consumption Linked to Increased Kawasaki Disease Risk; Seattle Children’s

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