Too much of a good thing? Protein is a pretty popular nutrient, especially among teenagers looking to be healthier. The need for protein can be easily overestimated. How much protein do you actually need and where should you get it from? Protein powders and shakes are so convenient and everyone drinks them, so should you? Are protein shakes even safe for teenagers to drink? This post will answer all of these questions plus more.
It can be harmful for teenagers to drink protein shakes but it depends on the individual, the amount, and the brand of protein shake. Some protein shakes have been found to be contaminated with unsafe ingredients for teenagers. Teenagers should get protein from a homemade protein shake (or other foods) instead of protein supplement shakes. There are a few brands of protein powder that I recommend as a registered dietitian nutritionist, but only for individual circumstances and convenience sake. Most teenagers already eat plenty of protein with a normal diet and don’t need extra protein supplements.
Read on for your protein questions answered from a registered dietitian nutritionist, plus six of my favorite protein picks that balance protein and energy with nutrient-dense calories to keep teen athletes on the move.
Why Do Some Teens Think They Need Protein Shakes?
While protein is critical to creating muscle mass, the need for protein can easily be overestimated. As the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics says, “more is not necessarily better” when it comes to protein. In other words, more protein does not mean the body is more likely to be toned.
Protein supplements may seem popular. However, for most teens a supplement is usually not necessarily. Especially in the case of a healthy diet, all protein needs can easily be met through food and through the advice of a healthcare professional.
A Bit About Protein
Protein is the building block of every cell in the body. It also is a little harder to digest and takes longer. This helps the body feel a sense of fullness when you eat protein, so you aren’t hungry soon after. Each gram of protein provides four calories for the body.
The macronutrient protein is an essential contribution to a teen’s healthy intake. However, the use of protein supplements is not advised unless a qualified nutrition and healthcare team recommends it. A dietitian can help you or your teen find out what their specific protein needs are and how to meet those needs.
Benefits of Protein for Teenagers
Protein is good- it does a lot of important things for your body, including:
- Growth and repair of muscles and body tissue
- Produces enzymes and hormones
- Helps you feel full and satisfied after eating
- Promotes a healthy weight
- Helps with energy metabolism
- Assists in other cellular processes
- Promotes a healthy immune system
Protein Supplement Companies Can Prey on Teens
Supplement companies often target teens. This is in part because teens are building muscle. However, most teens are capable of getting the protein they need through dietary means.
Should Teenagers Be Drinking Protein Shakes?
Protein shakes can potentially provide great tasting nutrients and deliver a calorie boost to teenagers. However, protein supplements and protein shakes aren’t recommended for everyone. Not all protein is created equal.
Most teenagers can get plenty of protein from regular food and protein shakes are unnecessary, expensive, and potentially harmful.
Do Teens Need Extra Protein?
The protein needs for teens supports a time of high growth in life.
Protein is essential to the following:
- Developing muscle tissue
- Supporting healthy organs
- Recovering from physical activity
- Tissue repair and generation
- Boosting immune health
- Coordinating cell activity
- Providing energy
Protein is crucial to support growth. By following a balanced diet with healthy protein sources throughout the day, a teenager will get plenty of protein to support regular body functions. Most teens get plenty of protein without even trying. Adding extra protein is typically unnecessary.
Do Teenage Athletes Need Extra Protein?
Teen athletes typically do need more calories and more protein than other teenagers. Be sure to get 15-30 grams of protein at every meal and snack, including pre- and post-workout snacks to fuel exercise and recovery.
- Is Whey Protein Safe for Teenage Athletes? Here’s What Dietitians Recommend
- The BEST Post-Workout Snacks for Teenagers – Dietitian Recommended!
- The 25 BEST Pre-Workout Meals and Snacks For a Teenage Athlete
Who Should Drink Protein Shakes?
Some teens can’t meet their protein needs through food. These teens should discuss the possibility of a protein supplement to fulfill daily protein requirements. Finding the right protein supplement or shake can potentially support healthy growth.
A protein supplement or shake may help teens experiencing:
- Periods of rapid growth
- A new workout regimen
- Low weight classifications
- An increase in workout intensity
- An injury recovery
- Surgery recovery
- Food allergies or intolerances
- Restrictive diets
- Specific health issues
Types of Protein Supplements
Protein supplements are often made out of casein or whey and they usually come in powder form. There are several ways to make a protein shake, including mixing the protein powder with:
- Milk substitute (almond milk, coconut milk)
- Other liquid (coconut water, etc.)
Should Vegetarians or Vegans Take a Protein Supplement?
There are plenty of ways for vegans and vegetarian teens to get the protein they need from their diet. However, some teens may benefit from a protein shake if they need a source of complementary protein intake to support healthy growth.
Complete Protein for Plant-Based Teens
Not all plant sources of protein contain all the building blocks (called amino acids) your body needs to be able to make new body tissue, build muscle, and repair and heal. A well-planned vegan or vegetarian diet of protein is crucial in order to get all the necessary amino acids. Vegan or vegetarian protein powders can help teenagers get enough protein when diets are lacking. Check with your healthcare provider before taking a vegan protein supplement.
Complete proteins are the ideal source of protein. These proteins contain all the building blocks the body needs. Meat and dairy are excellent examples, but should be consumed in moderation.
Can Teens Create a Protein Shake at Home?
Want to make a homemade, easy, affordable, and healthy protein shake? Teens can create a healthy protein shake at home with just as much, or even more, protein than a commercial shake. In fact, a homemade shake is the best choice for optimal nutrition! If your teen needs a protein shake to help with growth, a homemade option is a lot better.
Best Healthy Homemade Protein-Packed Shakes
Use the following ingredients in a homemade shake to make it protein-packed:
- Milk or milk alternative
- Greek yogurt
- Nut milk
- Nut butter
- Frozen fruit and/or vegetables
Protein Requirements for Teens
Protein foods are great ways to fulfill nutrient requirements. Meat isn’t the only option. Vegetarians, vegans, and other teens can find lean ways to fuel as well.
Teenage girls need around 4-6½ ounces or ounce-equivalents of protein foods each day. Three ounces of meat is about the size of a deck of cards. Teen boys need about 5-7 ounces of protein foods each day.
Learn more about protein and protein equivalent foods at MyPlate Protein Foods page. Teens should be getting between 10 to 35% of their daily calories from protein.
What Are Other Ways Teens Can Meet Protein Requirements?
Just eating protein doesn’t mean that muscle growth and repair will be stimulated. Exercise can help create more-developed muscles. Plus, there are plenty of non-shake ways to meet protein recommendations.
Dietary Sources of Protein for Teens
Lean meat, poultry, eggs, fish, and dairy products are among some of the best sources of protein for teenagers. Other sources include beans, nuts, and soy.
Here are some ideas from the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics for adding protein into the diet:
Meat & Poultry
- 4 ounces of chicken breast (33 grams of protein)
- 4 ounces of ground beef (26 grams)
- 1 egg (6 grams)
- 4 ounces of salmon (29 grams of protein)
Milk, Dairy, and Fortified Products
- 1 cup Greek yogurt (18 to 22 grams of protein)
- 1 cup yogurt (12 to 14 grams)
- 1 cup of milk (8 grams)
- 1 ounce cheese (5 to 7 grams)
Nuts, Beans, and Legumes
- ½ cup beans (7 to 9 grams of protein)
- 2 Tablespoons of peanut, almond, or soy butter (7 to 8 grams)
- 1 ounce nuts (3 to 6 grams)
- ½ cup firm tofu (11 grams of protein)
- ½ cup quinoa, cooked (4 grams)
As you can see, it can be simple to get the recommend protein a teen needs in a day (about 56 grams of protein per day for teen females and 70 grams for males) from food. Supplements are typically unnecessary.
Overall, I am hesitant to recommend supplements for most teenagers as the safety, efficacy, and benefits are often unknown in adolescent athletes. A well-balanced diet is almost always better than supplements for most healthy individuals, however, individual circumstances may require a supplement.
The Dangers of Protein Supplements for Teenagers
Supplements are not very well regulated and some definitely contain sketchy ingredients. Especially for teenagers, there is little evidence or existing studies to show protein supplements are safe. Supplements don’t need to pass regulatory approval before they are sold.
Teens are especially vulnerable to sketchy supplements because their bodies are developing and changing at a fast pace. Any contaminants or harmful additives can really hurt a teenager’s body. A well planned, high-quality diet is better than supplements. However, certain protein powders, creatine, collagen, and other common supplements can be recommended to some individuals with the guidance of an experienced medical professional (such as a dietitian).
One of my professors always said “food first!” meaning getting nutrients from food is better than getting nutrients from supplements. Teenagers are at such an important period of growth and development, and taking unnecessary supplements with potential contaminants and unsafe ingredients could cause more harm than good. Some studies have even shown that some supplements contain harmful contaminants.
For the following reasons, it is difficult to know if protein supplements are safe:
- No long-term studies
- No studies on children and teens
- Additives not listed on label
- Not tested for safety or health claims
- May contain harmful drugs or other contaminants
- Could be used without medical supervision
The U.S. Anti-Doping Agency has reported that dietary supplements can contain prohibited substances. For example, fillers can be used to increase the product’s volume without adding additional nutritional value. Some nutritional supplements even contain steroids. You don’t want to be taking anything you are unsure about as a teenager.
Taking Too Much Protein – High Dose Symptoms
Some athletes take way too much protein, thinking it will help them. What happens if you take too many protein supplements? Excessive protein intake can stress the body’s organs, such as the kidneys. This can lead to risk of contamination and dehydration and an upset stomach. Unwanted ingredients can abound, so it’s always important to check the label just to be safe.
Protein shakes in too high of doses could case the following symptoms:
- Poor appetite or appetite changes
Best Protein Supplements Recommended for Teens
Most experts agree that teens should get their protein from food if possible. There are some excellent options available if protein supplements are needed. Many of the better options contain plant-based ingredients and are low on additives.
Check out some of my favorite ways to boost protein from supplements for teenagers- registered dietitian nutritionist approved!
PBfit Pure Peanut
The 100% pure peanut powder in PBfit Pure Peanut has no sugar, no salt — it’s just roasted peanut powder. Peanut flour is made by removing most of the fat and pressing the peanuts. The product of this process is a pure protein powder great for mixing into recipes (from peanut sauces to morning smoothies and oatmeal). Two tablespoons contains 70 calories and 9 grams of protein. (Click to view on Amazon).
Orgain Kids Plant Protein
Nutritional shakes often have high levels of added sugar to mask chalky tastes. While pre-packaged shakes aren’t always the best options, they can provide fiber, vitamins and minerals, and higher levels of protein on busy days.
If your child really really needs a protein shake, I would try Orgain. Try a homemade protein-packed shake (see recipe above) at home and these shakes for on-the-go when needed.
Orgain Kids Plant Protein is made without soy, dairy, or lactose. It is also Kosher and vegan, so it caters to many dietary needs, too! It does contain sugar (which I recommend over non-nutritive sweeteners, but isn’t necessary in a protein shake).
Earthshake is formulated especially for kids and growing teens. It’s lactose free and has less than 1 gram of sugar per serving. With 7 grams of fiber and 8 grams of protein per serving, it’s one of the best options out there for teenagers. (This option does contain stevia and monk fruit, which some teens should avoid).
A protein shake can be better than not eating at all!
Need more help from a dietitian with eating habits? Check out my newest eBook: Nutrition Game Plan for Teenage Athletes complete with 4-week meal plan, nutrition tips, supplement advice, weight tips, snack ideas, and more.
See my other meal plans:
- FREE Downloadable Meal Plan for Teen Soccer (Football) Players
- Meal Plan for Teenage Basketball Players
- Meal Plan for Teenage Football Players
The Last Word on Protein Shakes From the Fueling Teens Dietitian:
Whether rushing off to school or recovering from a sports injury, protein shakes can be a great form of nutrition when derived from real ingredients. However, it’s important to follow dietitian and doctor recommendations. Beware of excessive amounts and unknown ingredients — they can harm growing bodies.
- Best Supplements for Teenage Athletes
- Is Whey Protein Safe for Teenage Athletes?
- Is Creatine Safe for High School Athletes? Ask a Dietitian!
- Can a 14 Year-Old Go Vegan?
- Dietitian Recommended Protein and Energy Bars for Teens
- Is it Easy to Lose Weight as a Teenager?
How Much Protein Does a Teenager Need Per Day? Teens need about 0.45-0.6 grams of protein for every pound of body weight (that’s about 0.85 grams per kilogram of body weight). Teen girls need around 55 grams of protein per day and teen boys need around 70-80 grams of protein per day.
How Much Protein is Too Much For a Teenager? Too much of a good thing can be a bad thing. Your body can’t store extra protein for later use, so it’s most important to get protein (15-30 grams) at every meal and snack than to eat a lot of protein at once. Teens need 10-35% of their total calories coming from protein, anything above 35% is too much. Any intake above 2 grams of protein per kilogram of weight is too much for a teenager and can be harmful and cause other nutrient deficiencies. For a 150 pound teenager that equals 136 grams of protein per day.
What is the Recommended Daily Intake of Protein for a Teenager? Teenagers need less protein than you might think. Teenagers need 10-35% of their total calories coming from protein, or about 0.45-0.6 grams of protein for every pound of body weight (about 0.85 grams per kilogram). For a teen girl at 120 pounds that equals a need of 54-72 grams of protein per day, and for a teen boy at 150 pounds that equals a need of 68-90 grams of protein per day.
What Supplements Should Teenage Athletes Take? Teenagers usually do not need supplements, they can be unsafe in adolescents and have harmful effects. As a registered dietitian nutritionist, the supplements I most often recommend to teenage athletes are vitamin D, iron, calcium, multivitamins, or probiotics, but only with the guidance from a doctor of dietitian and only when diets are inadequate. Teen athletes who are vegan/vegetarian, have allergies/intolerances, or other medical concerns should check with a doctor if a supplement is necessary.
What Should a Teenager Eat to Gain Muscle? A teenager should eat 15-30 grams of protein at every meal and snack (4-6 times during the day) in order to gain muscle. The best protein-containing foods include lean meats, poultry, fish, eggs, Greek yogurt, cottage cheese, milk, nuts and nut butter, beans, seeds, and occasionally, a protein supplement to help a teenager gain muscle.
Is Whey Protein Safe for Teenage Athletes? Certain types of whey protein with no extra ingredients or additives can be safe and convenient for teenage athletes in small doses. Most types of protein supplements are not recommended for teenagers due to possible ingredient contaminants and unsafe doses. Too much protein is harmful for teenagers, even for athletes.
Anzilotti AW. Sports Supplements. Kidshealth.org. Published November 2019.
Boldt A. What Protein Shake Is Best for a Teen. Livestrong.com. Published February 4, 2019.
Caspero A. Protein and the Athlete — How Much Do You Need? Eatright.org. Published 20, 2020.
Castle J. How Teen Athletes Can Build Muscle with Protein. Eatright.org. Published July 21, 2020.
Coleman E. Dangers of Protein Supplements for Teenagers. Healthyeating.sfgate.com. Published December 27, 2018.
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