Protein is an essential nutrient for everyone, especially for teens that are still growing and developing. However, too much of a good thing can still be harmful. Getting the right amount of protein at the right times during the day is a challenge for many teens.
A 15-year old should get between 10-35% of their daily calories from protein. The Recommended Daily Allowance (RDA) for protein is 46 grams per day for teen girls and 52 grams per day for teen boys. However, needs will differ based on activity level, body weight, and energy needs, so it is important to understand the specific needs of the individual.
Read more to find out why protein is important, how to calculate protein needs, what foods contain protein, and when to use protein supplements.
Why is Protein Important?
So much of your body is made up of protein. In fact, protein has been called the building block of the body because it is involved in so many processes. This nutrient helps with a variety of things in the body such as:
- Repairs muscles and cells that have been overworked or damaged
- Carries nutrients to different parts of the body in the bloodstream
- Maintains an appropriate blood pressure
- Supports the immune system
- Helps you feel full and satisfied
- Slows digestion of carbohydrates to help keep blood sugars regulated
- Contains important minerals and nutrients that the body cannot make on its own
- And many more!
Protein Needs for 15-Year Olds
Protein, carbohydrates, and fats all play important roles and are all needed in their proper amounts for the body to function. Focusing on getting a balance of all three each time you eat is the best way to make sure you are getting enough!
15-30g of protein at every eating occasion is a good amount to aim for. Your body can only handle a certain amount of protein at a time so eating it regularly throughout the day will be most beneficial, especially for teen athletes trying to build muscle, stay fit, and recover from tough workouts. Eating protein in excess will not give added benefit.
10-35% of your calories for the day should be coming from protein sources. Athletes that are putting more stress on their body often need a bit more protein.
Another easy way of figuring how many grams of protein you need per day is shown below:
- Non-athletes: Body weight (in pounds) x 0.3-0.4
- Athletes: Body weight (in pounds) x 0.45-0.6
Using these calculations, an athletic 15-year old that weighs 155 pounds would need about 70-93g of protein per day.
What Foods Contain Protein?
A wide variety of foods contain at least some protein, but some foods are better sources of protein than others. The following foods are the best sources of protein:
- Meat, fish, poultry
- Dairy, eggs
- Beans, peas, legumes, soy
- Nuts, nut butters, seeds
If a 15-year old has allergies or intolerances to certain protein foods, or if they are following a vegetarian or vegan diet, it is especially important to understand how much protein is in the foods they can eat. It may take a bit more effort and planning to make sure these teens get enough daily protein.
Food labels list how much protein (in grams) is in the food you are eating. The food label shows protein contained in one serving of the food, so if you eat more or less than a full serving be sure to take that into account.
The chart below from the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics shows some good sources of protein and how much is in a serving. This can give you a better idea of how much protein you are getting with your meals and snacks!
This is not an all-inclusive list of every food with protein in it, but it will help you get a bit better understanding of which foods contain protein and how much.
Try to include a variety of protein foods in your diet. This will keep you from getting bored of eating the same things and will also make sure you benefit from the unique nutrient profiles of different foods!
For example, it is recommended to eat 8 ounces of seafood each week in order to get the omega-3 fatty acids that are not found in many other foods. Nuts and seeds have healthy fats that aren’t found in all protein foods. Dairy products contain calcium and other vitamins and minerals that support bone health.
Can a 15-Year Old Take Protein Supplements?
Protein powders, drinks, and shakes are very popular right now. Many teens think that in order to get enough protein, build muscle, and be healthy they must take a protein supplement. While protein powders and drinks can be helpful tools in some situations, protein needs can be met without them. If you consume enough protein through the food sources listed above, you probably don’t need a protein supplement!
Generally speaking, the supplement industry is highly unregulated. That means you must be careful about the products you are putting in your body. Some have even been found to be contaminated with illegal and harmful substances! Additionally, many protein drinks and powders are expensive and using them improperly will end up being a waste of money.
Protein supplements are generally not recommended for those under 18. However, in some situations, a protein supplement could be helpful. Always check with a doctor before using a protein supplement.
Those with higher protein needs, or difficulty consuming high protein foods may benefit from a protein supplement. Athletes in particular need to get a good source of protein after they exercise. While it is sometimes difficult to eat right after exercise, many athletes have an easier time drinking a protein shake.
If you do choose to use a protein supplement, choose one that is high quality. Also, remember that you likely don’t need more than 15-30 grams at a time, so keep in mind how much protein that supplement provides.
Orgain Clean Protein is my favorite protein drink to recommend. It is made with very high quality, organic ingredients and contains 20g of protein. They also make a kids version that has 8g of protein. The kids version might be appropriate to accompany a meal that already has some protein, but not quite enough.
Happy Viking is a brand that makes vegan-friendly protein drinks with 20 grams of pea protein. They are dairy-free and could be a potential option for teens that have issues with dairy. (Plus, they taste really delicious.)
There are other good protein drinks and powders on the market. If you have a question about a specific supplement, check with a dietitian to make sure it is safe!
What Happens if You Get Too Much Protein?
There can be serious side effects of eating too much protein. Regularly consuming too high amounts of protein can put extra strain on the kidneys without providing any added benefit.
Protein does many things for your body, including helping you to feel satisfied when you eat. Eating too much protein could actually keep you from eating enough to meet your energy needs. If protein is out of balance, you likely will be missing out on other food groups that your body really needs.
On the flip-side, eating an excess of protein could also lead to weight gain if done in excess of energy needs.
One of the only times it is alright to not eat a balanced meal of carbohydrates, protein, and fat is right before exercising- especially before high intensity exercise. Consuming too much protein and fat at that time could actually slow you down and cause stomach issues, gas, and overall discomfort.
In the 30-60 minutes before exercise, focus more on carbohydrates. Sometimes a liquid protein is a little bit easier on the stomach before exercise.
What Happens if You Don’t Get Enough Protein?
If you don’t eat enough protein, your body will not have the material to rebuild and repair itself. Your body works very hard, even on days you are not exercising. It must have protein available to keep things functioning properly.
For athletes, your body is undergoing even more stress than the average person. After working your body and muscles so hard, be sure to give your body the protein (along with carbohydrates and fat) to recover.
Soreness and injuries can be due to not giving the body the right nutrients at the right times, especially protein. Getting in enough protein will help you to recover faster, build muscle faster, and help you feel better overall!
Getting a balance of protein every time you eat, along with carbohydrates and fats, is the most important way to make sure your body is getting what it needs.
You will feel your best when you eat protein spaced out through the day, rather than overloading the body with protein all at once. Aim for 15-30 grams of protein at all meals and snacks.
Use real food as much as possible to meet your protein needs. If you do need to supplement, make sure you choose one that is safe and made with high quality ingredients. Ask a dietitian if you have questions about specific supplements!
Castle J. How Teen Athletes Can Build Muscle with Protein. Published July 21, 2020.
Coleman E. Dangers of Protein Supplements for Teenagers. Updated December 27, 2018.
Ellis E. How Much Protein Should I Eat? Eatright.org Published December 15, 2020.
U.S. Department of Agriculture. Protein Foods. Myplate.gov. Based on Dietary Guidelines for Americans 2020-2025.
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