Protein Powders and Teens: Are They Safe? Are They Necessary?

By Dr. Jacqueline Winkelmann, pediatric hospitalist at CHOC


As a pediatrician and sports nutrition expert, I repeatedly get asked by coaches, parents, and young athletes: “What are the best protein supplements on the market? Are they safe? To me, the bigger question is, “Are protein supplements even necessary for young athletes?”

At one time, it was believed that muscle-building exercises in athletes greatly increased dietary protein needs. This idea led to a multibillion-dollar industry selling high-protein meals, bars and drinks marketed to athletes. Here are the most common questions I get on protein powders and young athletes—and what I tell parents when they ask.

How much protein do young athletes need?

The current recommendation for protein for young athletes is approximately 1.0-1.4 grams per kilogram per day, which means they need slightly more protein than their non-athlete peers This extra protein in their diet helps to sustain growth and development, muscle building and repair, as well as fueling intense exercise. This means, a 150-lb athlete should consume 80 grams of protein, or 20 extra grams a day. Recent studies have shown young athletes consume 2-3 times the recommended amount of protein per day in their diet alone.

What are the best sources of dietary protein?

The richest sources of protein are lean meats such as chicken, turkey, lean beef, fish, eggs, tofu, dairy products (milk, cheese, yogurt), beans, lentils and nuts.

Will eating extra protein make my young athlete stronger?

While it may seem sensible that “more is better” when it comes to protein, that’s simply not true. Studies show that consuming extra protein will produce no further gain in strength, muscle mass or size. The reason for this is simple; young athletes need anabolic hormones (i.e. testosterone) and physical training in order to stimulate protein synthesis and in turn increase muscle mass. The amount of protein they eat is irrelevant without the complete regimen.

What are some of the side effects or consequences of consuming too much protein?

High protein, low carb diets are never recommended for young athletes. Too much protein will cause problems. Since our bodies can’t store extra protein to use later, we will have to spend a significant amount of energy processing it, using up energy and water, two important resources for athletes. Eventually, extra protein will be converted into fat. Too much protein can cause nausea, loss of appetite, diarrhea and can even stress the liver and kidneys.

Is the timing of protein intake important?

YES! This we can pay attention to; small amounts of protein throughout the day is the most efficient and effective way to consume protein. Pay special attention to snacks before and after exercise. Athletes recover faster when they eat some protein within 30 minutes of exercise. Aim for 20-25 grams of protein as part of the pre- and post-recovery snacks. For example, a 4-ounce serving of chicken, fish or beef provides between 25-30 grams of protein, an egg provides 6 grams, and a cup of milk 8 grams of protein.

Could protein supplements/powders benefit my young athlete?

There has been great hype created around protein powders and their importance for athletes. They are for the most part unnecessary for young athletes. W know young athletes have a slightly increased protein requirement, they should be able to easily obtain their protein from food rather than supplements. Protein powders are not currently regulated by the FDA. This means they may contain artificial sweeteners, heavy metals and other chemicals that young athletes are just better off without. Plus, they’re expensive!

Who might benefit from protein supplements?

Athletes who are vegetarian or vegan, those who have certain medical conditions, or those who are underweight might benefit from protein supplements after establishing that he or she does not consume enough protein in his/her diet. Protein intake should be supervised by a dietitian, nutritionist or health professional.

What should parents consider if purchasing protein powders?

Food is the best source of protein, but, if your athlete needs a protein supplement, do your research! Be aware that price does not correlate with purity. Look for those supplements with high ratings from the Clean Label Project or the National Sanitation Foundation (NSF).

What are some strategies for safe weight gain and increasing muscle mass especially for adolescent athletes?

There are three key components to muscle building: calories, resistance training and rest. The American Academy of Pediatrics Committee on Sports Medicine and Fitness recommends exercises focusing on core strength, balance and agility for pre-adolescent athletes, and only after puberty should they consider adding muscle bulk.

How can I help my teen increase their caloric intake in a healthy way?

Increase calorie intake by 300-500 calories per day with a little extra protein. To increase calories:
~ do not skip breakfast
~ aim to eat 5-9 times per day
~ increase portion size
~ add nuts, extra sandwich or bowl of cereal before bed

What should my teen know about resistance training?

Muscle growth is accelerated with the onset of puberty, around age 13-18 years old. Resistance training is key when the goal is to increase muscle mass, size and strength. This can in fact increase muscle weight by up to 15 percent per year during these years. A general strengthening program should have an adequate warm up and cool down and address all major muscle groups. It’s important to train with focus and intensity, not just go through the motions. For increase in muscle size: do multiple sets of 8-15 repetitions/set. For increase in power/strength: lift heavier weights and do multiple sets of 4-6 reps/set. Training should always be done under adult supervision by a certified professional.

How important are rest days?

Rest is an essential part of maintaining a healthy lifestyle. Strength training for a particular body part should be done on non-consecutive days. Just as important, the body needs to rest in order to rebuild muscle fibers and increase muscle mass. Adolescents should get between 8-9 hours of sleep per night.