Teenagers probably know that protein is important for strong muscles, but did you know there are lots of other reasons why protein is important? Do you know how much protein your body really needs? You might have seen people drinking huge protein shakes while they workout at the gym, but is that really necessary?
Almost everyone should be getting between 10-35% of their daily calories from protein. The Recommended Daily Allowance (RDA) for protein is about 46 grams per day for girls and 52 grams per day for boys, but many teens need more than that. Increased energy needs and increased activity level will require a higher need for protein.
Read on for more information about protein, why it is important, information about choosing protein supplements, and how to make sure you are getting enough protein for your body!
Why is protein important?
Your body is a high functioning machine that never stops working! Your body requires the proper fuel and tools for maintenance and strength in order to keep it functioning at its full capacity. Protein is actually known as the building block of the body so you can guess that it is probably pretty important. So what does protein do for your body?
Protein is involved in so many of the body’s functions. Some of the most important jobs of protein are listed below!
- Increases satisfaction from meals and snacks
- Supports a healthy immune system
- Helps to regulate blood sugars through slowing digestion of carbohydrates
- Makes up molecules that transport important nutrients to the rest of the body
- Provides building blocks for repairing damaged cells and muscles
- Protein foods contain essential nutrients involved in many chemical reactions in the body
How Much Protein Do Teens Need?
While protein is extremely important for the body, it should still be consumed in moderation and balanced with other foods. Carbohydrates and fats are also essential macronutrients that the body needs.
Protein needs are dependent on different factors. Those with higher overall energy (calorie) needs and those that are more active need more protein to keep their body functioning at its best.
The Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommend that 10-35% of your total daily calories should be coming from protein. For example, a teenager that needs about 2000 calories a day should be getting 200-700 calories from protein.
One gram of protein yields about four calories. By taking calories from protein and dividing by four calories per gram, someone who needs 2000 calories would need between 50-175 grams of protein each day. This is quite a large range of protein!
There is another way of calculating protein needs that can give a bit more narrow range. These calculations are different for athletes and non-athletes and are shown below. These equations will give you an estimation for protein needs per day in grams.
- Non-athletes: Body weight (in pounds) x 0.3-0.4
- Athletes: Body weight (in pounds) x 0.45-0.6
For a teen that weighs 140 pounds and is playing soccer regularly, you would use the second equation shown to estimate protein needs to be between 63 and 84 grams per day.
Should I take Protein Supplements?
Protein supplements are all the hype right now. But are they even necessary? And more importantly, are they safe for teenagers? Protein supplements include protein powders, shakes and drinks. While they are generally not recommended for teenagers, there are some exceptions.
The main reason protein drinks are not typically recommended for teens is because harmful substances have been found in some protein supplements.. These contaminants can be particularly harmful to the growing, developing body of a teenager.
High quality protein supplements are ones that have been tested for safety and will typically have the “USP” label to show that they voluntarily had testing done on their product. They should contain the ingredients listed on the food label, nothing more, nothing less. Supplements should always be made with high quality ingredients in appropriate amounts that are not excessive.
Always ask a doctor before starting any kind of supplement. They can help you choose one that is safe, effective, and appropriate for your individual needs.
That being said, protein supplementation is not necessary for meeting protein requirements. You can actually get all the protein you need from food sources! However, protein supplements can be a quick and easy protein option and could potentially be beneficial in some cases, such as:
- Athletes with very high protein needs, busy schedules, and long commutes after exercise
- Teens that are following vegetarian and vegan diets and are having a challenging time getting in enough protein
- Teens with allergies that make it difficult to consume protein foods
- Teens that are recovering from injury or surgery
What are The Best Sources of Protein?
The best sources of protein are whole foods! Real food should always be your number one source of protein, with supplements doing just that, supplementing.
Foods have complex nutrient profiles, but some are higher in protein than others. Substantial amounts of protein are often found in the following foods:
- Nuts, nut butters, seeds
- Meat, fish, poultry
- Soy products
- Legumes such as beans and lentils
- Dairy products
The chart below from the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics shows some of the best sources of protein.
What if I Get Too Much Protein?
Excessive amounts of protein do not improve health or build muscle faster. Your body really can’t handle more than 20-30 grams of protein at a time. It is helpful to space protein intake throughout the day rather than consuming it all at once. This will give your body the most benefit from the protein you are consuming.
Protein is so important, but do you remember carbohydrates and fat? If you get too much protein, you might actually be missing out on getting the appropriate balance of these other nutrients that your body needs.
Excessive protein intake can also put unnecessary stress on the body’s organs, especially the kidneys. Just remember to get a balance of carbohydrates, protein, and fat each time you eat and your body will thank you!
What if I Don’t Eat Enough Protein?
Since protein is so involved in nearly everything in the body, not getting enough can be really detrimental! Your body cannot function at its best if you are not giving it the tools and materials it needs.
Teenage athletes that are not consuming enough high quality protein will likely suffer in their sport. They will be more susceptible to injury and will have a higher time recovering from exercise strain and soreness.
Easy Ways to Increase Protein
If you struggle to get enough protein, here are some tips! There are many simple ways of adding in protein that do not take much time or energy to do.
- Snacks should be a carbohydrate (such as a starch or fruit) paired with a protein. Cheese, nuts, peanut butter, and beef jerky are really easy protein foods to include with snacks
- Look for small ways to add protein to high carbohydrate foods. Oatmeal is a delicious breakfast food, but adding some peanut butter and nuts adds some healthy fat and protein to balance it out!
- Use protein powders when needed. A high-quality, safe protein powder can be used to mix into smoothies, oatmeal, sauces, pancake mix, etc. Remember to always check with a doctor before using a protein supplement.
- Keep lean meats like chicken and turkey available for easy access. Try pre-cooked fresh or frozen chicken strips for an easy protein source to add to salads, quesadillas, or just to snack on by itself! Rotisserie chicken can also be used the same way and can be picked off the bone and frozen for later use. Just heat it up in the microwave and enjoy!
- Choose dairy products that have higher protein content. Yogurt is a great source of calcium for strong bones. Greek yogurt typically has a higher protein content than regular yogurt but provides the same nutrients for building healthy bones.
- Add legumes such as beans and lentils to meals. This will reduce the amount of meat you might consume and add more plant-based protein into your diet. You can even substitute some of the meat for plant-based protein in some recipes. This will also add variety to the meals you are eating.
Protein Needs for Teens
Protein is an essential nutrient for the body, but it does not have to be consumed excessively. Focus on eating a balanced diet including foods from all of the food groups. Enjoy eating a wide variety of yummy and nutritious food and pay attention to how different foods make your body feel! Developing a connection with your body will help you get the appropriate amounts of the nutrients you need.
Always be aware of what you are putting into your growing body. Real, whole foods should be your main source of protein. If a supplement is needed, choose one that is safe and made from high quality ingredients. Talk to your doctor first to make sure a protein supplement is appropriate for your body.
Castle J. How Teen Athletes Can Build Muscle with Protein. Eatright.org Published July 21, 2020.
Ellis E. How Much Protein Should I Eat? Eatright.org Published December 15, 2020.
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