Protein powder supplements have long been popular in the world of sports. Some athletes consume protein powders due to a lack of protein in their diet, some consume it with the hopes of gaining more muscle mass, some use it as a meal replacement for convenience purposes, and some drink it just because social media says they should. So what about teen athletes? Is protein powder for teenagers necessary? Is it safe? Is it truly beneficial or is it just a waste of money? Read on to learn all about protein needs for teenagers, when and why to use protein powder for teenage athletes, and what are the best protein powders for teen athletes.
The Role of Protein for Teen Athletes
Protein is an essential macronutrient that helps repair and regenerate damaged muscle tissue, aid in muscle contraction, increase hormones that assist in muscle recovery and growth, and also improves immune function. The amount of protein you need depends on your age, gender, weight, level of activity, and intensity and frequency of strength training.
Athletes require more protein than a sedentary individual, however, research has demonstrated a threshold with protein intake, and that eating more protein than what your body needs does not result in larger muscle gains or increased strength.
How Much Protein Do Teen Athletes Need?
The exact amount of protein athletes need is a topic that is highly debated. The new 2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommend adults eat 0.8g of protein per kg of body weight, but it is widely accepted that athletes need (likely) much more than this. The amount of daily protein teen athletes need is usually between 1.0-1.4 g/kg body weight. (4) Most athletes are able to meet these requirements and often even exceed it. (5)
Contrary to popular belief, when it comes to protein, more is not always better. Although some controversy exists regarding the maximum amount of protein young adults (and likely teen athletes as well) should consume in a single meal, current research indicates that amounts higher than around 20-25g of protein per meal does not have any extra benefits. (2) Furthermore, research shows that protein intake should be spread throughout the day in amounts of 20-30g per serving rather than consuming a lot at one sitting for optimal muscle protein synthesis. (3) Athletes are also said to recover faster when they consume protein within 30-60 minutes after exercising. (4)
Are Protein Powders Safe for Teen Athletes?
Protein supplements are generally considered safe when taken correctly and appropriately, even for teen athletes. The “grey” part of this statement is that protein supplements are not regulated by the FDA and can therefore be contaminated with things we do not want in our bodies, such as heavy metals, BPA, and other unsafe contaminant. (1) Not only that, but many protein powders have as much as 23 grams of added sugar per scoop, and the American Heart Association recommends limiting daily added sugar amounts to 25 to 36 grams. (1)
To make sure that you, your child, or your athlete are consuming a safe product, choose protein supplements that have undergone third party testing and make sure to read the label and ingredients list. If a supplement company makes it difficult to find the Supplement Facts panel on their website, uses proprietary blends to hide the doses for their main ingredients, or cites research that has nothing to do with their supplement, these can all be red flags for the safety of their supplement.
Another way you can make sure of the correct dosage and safety of the supplement is by reaching out to a Registered Sports Dietitian.
Are Protein Shakes Appropriate for Teen Athletes?
The media and marking has convinced many athletes that they need to consume protein supplementation if they want to be the best. This simply is not the whole truth. Although protein supplementation can absolutely be beneficial for athletes, it is not a requirement nor necessary for all athletes. It is possible for athletes to get all of their protein needs from food alone, which is also considered the best source of protein. For a practical example, let’s compare a whole chicken breast to a scoop of protein powder.
There are, however, circumstances where the benefits of protein supplementation are appropriate and certainly helpful. The most common scenarios I have seen protein supplements benefit teen athletes is when:
- They have diet restrictions, allergies, or strong food aversions.
- They have a vegetarian or vegan eating style.
- They have a poor, weak, or unreliable appetite.
- Busy schedules of school, sports and other activities make it difficult to prep and carry whole food options throughout the day.
Many teen athletes often find themselves in one or more of these situations so adding a protein supplement powder into their diet can be very helpful.
In some cases protein supplementation can be cost effective for the amount of protein they need to consume. It’s important to parents and guardians to consider the cost analysis of buying protein rich foods vs a supplement. For example, protein bars are a convenient way to eat on the go, but a protein shake may be far more affordable per serving.
Best Protein Powders for Teen Athletes
A good rule of thumb to follow in selecting the best protein powder for your teen athlete is to look for minimal ingredients. You can get all kinds of crazy ingredients in a protein shake mix but they all might not be necessary or even high quality.
Whey isolate is generally the most popular protein powder as it undergoes more processing allowing the protein content to be higher, and fat and carbohydrate to be lower compared to whey concentrate. It is especially great for recovery as it is the fastest protein to be broken down and absorbed by the body. It also has a lower lactose content, even though it comes from dairy sources, which could be beneficial for those that are lactose intolerant.
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Casein, another protein derived from dairy a good “bed-time” protein option as it digests slower throughout the night and continues to aid in muscle building. This is especially helpful if your teen athlete was unable to consume enough protein throughout the day. Casein can be found in whole food sources too like cottage cheese and yogurt.
Soy and pea protein isolate with a minimal ingredient list are great vegan options for teen athletes with diet restrictions. Vegan protein powders that are a mixture of many sources (like pea, soy and rice) are also a great way to help get a blend of essential amino acids.
If you are a teen athlete and you are consuming your recommended amount of protein from food alone, a protein supplement is not necessary, as consuming excessive amounts of protein from high-protein supplements may be taxing on your kidneys and cause dehydration. (5) The best place to start is to first work on eating more whole food sources of protein like lean meats, eggs, dairy, beans, nuts, and seeds. After getting these quality foods in more regularly, then consider (with the help of a sports dietitian) adding a protein powder supplement to help you meet high protein needs, get you through a demanding schedule or season, or make it easier to consume the nutrients you need.
Written by: Crystal Liebenberg & Jenna Braddock
Crystal Liebenberg is a Master’s of Science student and Dietetic Intern at the University of North Florida (UNF). She is originally from South Africa and moved to the US in 2016 to attend college and play sport. She was a D1 Track & Field athlete for UNF, specializing in the 400m and 400m hurdles. She also plans on becoming a Physician Assistant with the intention of combining nutrition and modern medicine.
- Protein Powders May Be Doing More Harm than Good | National Center for Health Research. Accessed May 21, 2021. https://www.center4research.org/protein-powders-more-harm-than-good/
- Schoenfeld BJ, Aragon AA. How much protein can the body use in a single meal for muscle-building? Implications for daily protein distribution. J Int Soc Sports Nutr. 2018;15(1):1-6. doi:10.1186/s12970-018-0215-1
- Karpinski C, Rosenbloom C. Dietary Fat and Exercise. Sports Nutrition:s A Handbook for Professionals. 6th Edition. American Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. 2017.
- Protein Powders and Teens: Are They Safe? Are They Necessary? Accessed May 21, 2021. https://blog.chocchildrens.org/protein-powders-and-teens-are-they-safe/
- How Teen Athletes Can Build Muscle with Protein. Accessed May 21, 2021. https://www.eatright.org/fitness/sports-and-performance/fueling-your-workout/how-teen-athletes-can-build-muscles-with-protein