Protein and Children: Why Less May Be More 37741

As a registered dietitian nutritionist, I always tout the perks of protein in the context of a nutritious diet. A satiating and satisfying nutrient, protein is found in a wide variety of animal and plant foods. Children need it because it provides their bodies with energy to support growth, development and maintenance of muscles, bones, organs and all body cells. But despite its many virtues, many children—and their parents—OD on protein.

The popularity of Atkins' type diets coupled with concern over carbohydrate and added sugar intake have led many of us parents to consume more of our daily calories from protein. That has likely lead many kids to also eat more protein-rich foods. The emergence of more and more foods pumped up with protein—everything from granola bars to pasta, Cheerios with protein, high protein pretzels and even pancake mix made with extra protein as described in a recent segment on Good Morning America—is likely to make even more adults and children consume protein in amounts that can greatly exceed their daily needs.

For infants up to age 6 months, the adequate intake (AI) for protein is 9.1 grams daily. For older children, Recommended Dietary Allowances for protein range from 11 grams daily for 7- to 12-month-olds to 13 to 46 grams daily for 1- to 18-year-olds. To put these protein recommendations in perspective, the following foods and beverages each pack in about 8 grams of protein: 1 ounce roasted turkey, 1 ounce broiled sirloin, 1 cup milk, 1 ounce Swiss cheese, 4 ounces firm tofu; and ~1/2 cup chickpeas.

Although it's a challenge to know just how much protein infants and older children consume, the most recent What We Eat in America report reveals that boys aged 2- to 5-years-old, 6- to 11-years-old, and 12- to 19-years-old consume an average of 56, 68 and 95 grams of protein, respectively, each day. The survey also shows that girls aged 2- to 5-years-old, 6- to 11-years-old, and 12- to 19-years-old consume an average of 56, 63, and 64 grams of protein, respectively, each day.  grams. Essentially, the report suggests that children can easily consume 3 to 4 times the amount of protein recommended for them daily.

Although it's not yet clear how excess protein affects children's health over the long term, a recent review in Food & Nutrition Research concludes that a high intake of protein (15 to 20% of total calorie intake) in infancy and young childhood increases the risk of obesity later in life. The researchers recommend an average of 15% of total calorie intake for protein as the upper limit at 12 months of age. (However, current Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommend a range of 10- to 35% of total calories from protein for Americans aged 2 and older.) To reduce protein intake in an infants' diet, the researchers recommend breastfeeding for the first year of life since breast milk has less protein than formula, and to avoid excessive intakes of protein-rich foods like cow's milk.

Besides its link to weight gain, too much protein can strain kidneys and cause bones to excrete calcium. It can also lead to excess calorie and saturated fat intake—and increase the risk of unhealthy weight gain, cardiovascular disease, high blood cholesterol and high blood pressure. This is especially true if the protein foods children eat include big portions of fried, skinned chicken, fatty meats and full-fat dairy products.

While it's much more important to focus on children's overall diet and the foods they are offered and actually eat rather than specifically how much protein they consume, we parents can help them achieve more dietary balance. When it comes to protein, we need to provide—but not push—protein foods that are in their lowest fat forms and are prepared in healthful ways. Examples include low- and nonfat milk, yogurt and cheese; lean beef; skinless poultry; fish; eggs; beans and peas; and nuts and seeds. We need to offer these foods in amounts based on children's unique needs (check out the Daily Food Planner based on MyPlate here).

Although few children are deficient in protein, those who for whatever reason consume fewer calories than they need for growth and those who follow vegetarian or vegan diets may fall short on protein. In such cases, it's important to offer and encourage intake of protein-rich plant foods including soybeans and tofu (like animal proteins, these contain all the essential amino acids the body needs and cannot make itself) to meet calorie and energy needs. Adding such foods to other dishes your child already likes can help. And while foods touted as having extra protein can help some children meet their baseline protein needs, most can afford to bypass such foods and instead rely on foods that are naturally protein-rich.

Image of meat and dairy foods via shutterfly.

Do you pay attention to your child's protein intake?