The Scoop on Food

Protein Powder for Kids? Here's Why You Should Skip It.

It's a hot supplement for grown-ups--but is protein powder right for kids?

Boy Holding a Glass of Orange Juice Boiarkina Marina/Shutterstock
I cringe every time a celebrity comes out with a new diet plan or nutrition product. They usually have no credentials or education to make their claims. And too often, their plans and products are crazy-restrictive (No sugar! No gluten! No dairy! Nothing white!), crazy-pricey (like celeb-endorsed supplements), or both (I'm looking at you, Gwyneth Paltrow, and your raw organic cold-pressed juice cleanses).

Model Elle Macpherson recently announced that her supplement company WelleCo created a new protein powder for kids called Kids Nourishing Protein. The chocolate-flavored powder gets its protein from brown rice and pea proteins and costs $30 for about 16 servings (which seems like a steal compared to her $250 Super Elixir Alkalising Greens that comes in a gold bottle).

According to WelleCo, the plant protein would be beneficial for kids who are fussy eaters, have poor concentration, love sweets, or are always sick. In ads, Macpherson says she wanted a supplement for her 13-year-old son, who has a fast metabolism and is "often running on low blood sugar".

Setting aside the fact that simply eating something with carbohydrate (a banana, a yogurt, a few crackers) can help lift a low blood sugar, Macpherson's new product raises an important question: There's no denying that protein powder is hot, but do kids actually need it?

In most cases, no. Kids' protein needs aren't actually that high and can be pretty easily met with a regular diet. "A child is likely meeting his or her requirements from day to day quite easily through food alone," says Sarah Remmer, a dietitian specializing in family nutrition. After all, protein isn't just found in meat and poultry. Grains, dairy, nuts and nut butter, eggs, beans, and even vegetables all supply protein too.

And, when it comes to protein, more isn't necessarily better. "Protein powders in general can provide kids with too much protein, which can be hard on your child's kidneys and liver and can interfere with calcium absorption," Remmer says. There's also research suggesting that too much animal protein during childhood may increase the risk for obesity (though Macpherson's protein powder is plant-based, others contain protein from milk).

Protein powder also tends to have added sweeteners. Kids Nourishing Protein contains a few different kinds, including a sugar alcohol and a form of stevia. Sweeteners are listed as the second and third ingredient, after the protein blend.

But there's also a larger issue. "It's not real food," says Remmer. "Whole foods such as meats and alternatives, fruits, vegetables, whole grain and dairy products naturally contain a special combination of nutrients that work synergistically to provide health benefits. Supplements such as these are missing some of those important nutrients and compounds and don't provide the same benefits. And they don't teach kids to grow to love a variety of real whole foods either."

What about Macpherson's claims that her protein powder is great for fussy eaters? A protein shake may seem like a quick fix, but you should be focused on the long game instead. "Serving supplements to your child as an alternate to real food isn't sending the right message," says Remmer. "'You won't eat these foods? Ok, here's a protein shake instead' isn't going to help your child accept a variety of nutritious foods."

It's better to save your money, skip the protein powders, and keep offering nutritious foods. And if you're really concerned about your child's protein intake, bypass celebrities and talk to your child's pediatrician or a registered dietitian instead.

Sally Kuzemchak, MS, RD, is a registered dietitian, educator, and mom of two who blogs at Real Mom Nutrition. She is the author of The Snacktivist's Handbook: How to Change the Junk Food Snack Culture at School, in Sports, and at Camp—and Raise Healthier Snackers at Home. You can follow her on Facebook Twitter PintePinterePintestrest, and Instagram. She collaborated with Cooking Light on Dinnertime Survival Guide, a cookbook for busy families. In her spare time, she loads and unloads the dishwasher. Then loads it again.