Many go-to snack foods like chips, crackers, and fruit do not contain very much protein. Protein is not only an essential nutrient for the body, but it also increases satisfaction and sustains energy for longer when included at snack times.
Good sources of protein that can be easily added at snack time to increase protein content are: nuts, low-fat milk or soy milk, greek yogurt, low-fat cheese, low-sodium deli meat, beef jerky, and nut butters. Healthy snacks usually contain a balance of carbohydrates, protein, and fat.
Read on to find out why protein is so important for teenagers, whether or not to use protein supplements, and helpful snack ideas with protein.
Why is Protein Important for Teens?
Protein plays an essential role in keeping the body functioning at its best. It is commonly referred to as the building block of the body because so much of the human body is actually made up of protein. Below are some of the other things protein does for the body.
- Repairs stressed muscles
- Decreases wound healing time
- Strengthens hair, nails, and skin
- Supports a healthy immune system
- Stabilizes blood sugars
- Maintains appropriate blood pressure
- Transports nutrients throughout the body
- Increasing satisfaction of meals and snacks
How Much Protein Do Teenagers Need?
Protein needs are different for each person based on their body composition and activity level. In general, it is recommended that 10-35% of your total calories each day come from protein.
Another simple way of estimating how much protein you should be getting is shown below. Use the equation that best fits your activity level and plug in your body weight in pounds.
- Non-athletes: Body weight (in pounds) x 0.3-0.4
- Athletes: Body weight (in pounds) x 0.45-0.6
Using these equations, a teen basketball player that is 160 pounds would likely need between 72-96 grams of protein.
What are the Best Sources of Protein for Teens?
Some foods are better sources of protein than others. The following are some of the best sources of protein:
- Meat, poultry, fish
- Low-fat cheese, greek yogurt, low-fat milk, cottage cheese
- Nuts and seeds
- Legumes such as lentils and beans
- Soy products
The chart below from the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics shows grams of protein in common protein foods. This is not a complete list of all foods with protein, but it can be a good reference as you learn about how much protein your body needs and what food sources to get it from.
Can Teenagers Take Protein Supplements?
Real food, rather than supplements, should always be the main way you get protein in your diet. In fact, all protein needs can be met through food, without a need for supplements. However, some teenagers might benefit from the convenience and ease of using a protein supplement. That might include:
- Athletes with very high protein needs
- Teens with busy schedules and a need for quick and on-the-go protein options
- Teens with high protein needs due to injury or surgery
- Allergies or intolerances that make it hard to get enough protein
- Teens following a vegan or vegetarian diet with limited protein options
The supplement industry is highly unregulated. Protein supplements could be contaminated with substances dangerous to the growing and developing bodies of teenagers. Always talk with a doctor before starting any kind of supplement. They can determine if it is really necessary and if it will be safe.
Look for supplements that have been tested for safety by a third-party. Typically they will be labeled with a “USP” or “NSF” label. Third party testing will ensure that everything in the product is listed on the food label, and there is nothing else in the supplement.
What Makes up a Healthy Snack for Teens?
Snacks should contain a mixture of carbohydrates, protein, and fat. This will provide you with sustained energy. Adding healthy, balanced snacks to your daily eating routine is a great way to keep your body fueled and to bridge long gaps between meals.
There are very few foods that naturally have a good balance of carbohydrates and fat. Greek yogurt is one of the few that is actually balanced on its own. Most of the time, you will need to pair foods together to get a balanced snack. I usually look for a carbohydrate source like fruit, grains, or vegetables and a protein and fat source such as a dip, hummus, peanut butter, nuts, etc.
Including a variety of foods to snack on will help your body get all the vitamins and minerals it needs. Since every food has a different nutrient profile, mix it up and don’t be afraid to try new foods!
High Protein Foods to Add to Snacks
The following is a list of protein-containing foods that can give your snack more protein. Many of these protein foods also have some fat in them as well, so remember to pair them with a good source of carbohydrates!
- Nut butters (peanut butter, almond butter, soy butter etc)
- Hard boiled eggs
- Deli meat (Look for lower-sodium options when available)
- Cottage Cheese
- Greek Yogurt
- Milk and soymilk
- Protein Powder
- Grilled chicken strips or rotisserie chicken
- Protein bars
- String cheese or other snack cheese
- Beef jerky
- Fairlife Chocolate milk
Should Teens Eat a High Protein Snack Before Exercise?
Although protein is very important for muscle repair and growth, right before exercise is usually not the best time to have a high protein snack. Since protein and fat slow down the digestion of your food and help you feel more full, it may actually decrease your athletic performance and cause stomach cramps and indigestion.
Instead, choose higher carbohydrate snacks right before exercise, especially in the 1-2 hours before exercise. Some liquid protein or small amounts of protein might be tolerated. Be sure to never use the day of a sporting event to experiment with your food intake! Use practice and off-season workouts to determine what method of fueling works best for your body.
High amounts of protein and fat should also be avoided during exercise. Carbohydrates are your body’s main energy source and that is what should be replenished during exercise. Sports drinks, fruit, gels, and gummies are good sources of quickly digesting carbohydrates for long workouts. Athletes participating in very long, lower intensity workouts might benefit from some liquid protein if their body can tolerate it.
After exercise is a great time to get a high protein snack for muscle growth along with some carbohydrates to replenish the stores that were just wiped out.
How Much Protein Should Teens Include in Their Snacks?
Your body actually cannot handle excessive protein all at the same time. Consuming large amounts of protein at a time is actually not giving you any added benefit. It can even put added stress on your body’s organs (especially the kidneys).
Instead, space out your protein intake regularly throughout the day. This usually means getting between 10-30 grams of protein at each snack, and 15-30 grams at meals.This will allow your body to more effectively and efficiently use the protein you are consuming.
Eating protein every 3-5 hours is likely going to be the best way for your body to build muscle. If there are long gaps between your meals, adding in a snack with protein could be very beneficial for optimizing protein intake!
Balanced Snack Ideas for Teens
It is easy to get stuck in a rut eating the same snacks day after day. Below are just a few snack ideas to help you get more ideas. Remember to think outside the box! Snacks do not only have to be made up of “snack foods.” Maybe you want to have smaller meals spread out through the day to leave you feeling more satisfied and energized.
- Apple slices with almond butter
- Pretzels with chocolate chips and peanut butter
- Cottage cheese with fruit
- Carrot sticks, a few crackers, and hummus
- Edamame and wheat thins
- Fairlife chocolate milk and toast with peanut butter and jam
- Beef jerky and a banana
- Hard-boiled egg with triscuits
- Avocado toast with fried egg
- Greek yogurt with granola and berries
- Roll with deli meat and cheese
- Quesadilla with chicken and cheese
- Protein bar and a fruit smoothie
- Nuts and watermelon slices
- Smoothie with fruit, spinach, greek yogurt and peanut butter
- Smoothie with fruit, spinach, and milk, and protein powder
- String cheese and cantaloupe
- Turkey and cheese sandwich
- Greek yogurt dressing with peppers and crackers
- Protein drink with dried fruit
- Trail mix
Remember that you can mix and match these ideas as long as you choose a carbohydrate source and protein source. Fat is naturally found in many foods, especially protein foods, so choosing snacks in this way will give you an appropriate balance of all the macronutrients!
Protein and Teenagers
If you struggle to come up with healthy, balanced snack ideas, you are not alone. But it is really not challenging once you see some ideas and understand how to balance foods. Remember to include carbohydrates, protein, and fat in your snacks. This will help to keep your energy levels up and sustain them for longer.
Do not force yourself to eat snacks that you don’t like. There are so many snack ideas in the above article so try the ones that sound appealing to you! Your snacks should taste yummy and be enjoyable to eat. Use snacks to honor your body’s hunger cues throughout the day between meals!
Ellis E. How Much Protein Should I Eat? Eatright.org Published December 15, 2020.
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