With all the talk about how important protein is lately, you may be wondering “How much protein do kids need?” So first, let’s define kids as 4-18 years old. As a 2023 study by the NIH says, “beyond the dietary recommendations to prevent deficiency, there are no guidelines for an ‘optimal’ protein intake in [the] pediatric population for promoting healthy growth and development.”
Well, that is not very helpful is it.
The biggest problem in estimating the protein needs of kids is the same issue for adults. The method that is generally used (nitrogen balance) tends to underestimate protein needs. And that reanalyzed results using a more accurate method suggest the RDA for kids should closer to the 0.7 g/lb level (that is the very minimum that we recommend for adults).
Taking all that into consideration, the jury is still out on the best level. If you’re looking around for guidance, you’ll find that there appears to be a wide range of intakes in children that is considered “adequate” (0.3 – 1.3 g/lb). This wide range is consistent with US guidelines to keep protein within 10-30% of calories for children – but that’s a big swing in terms of protein grams. Using a child that’s eating 1,600 calories a day, that’s anywhere between 40 – 120 grams of protein!
Keeping all of this in mind, 0.7 g/lb level is likely a good target, especially for active kids. If your child is more sedentary (a subject for another blog) the more likely something near the RDA is adequate (~0.4 g/lb).
Just like adults, should aim to get protein at every meal (along with fruits, veggies and other foods). Educating your child about eating whole, unprocessed foods and encouraging protein at every meal is a very healthy approach.
We often get asked if protein powders are appropriate for kids. The answer is yes and no. There is nothing harmful to children in protein powders BUT getting protein from whole foods is always preferable. Unless your child has a specific goal (building muscle) or dietary restrictions that prevent them from getting adequate protein from whole food sources, a supplement is likely unnecessary.
TL;DR: There is limited research for kids protein intake, although the current methods for estimating protein needs likely underestimate true needs. Some suggest that protein intakes near 0.7g/lb would be more appropriate for children, but a wide range of intakes is likely adequate (10-30% of calories). All protein foods count for children, but parents are not encouraged to set rigid targets for children nor get overly zealous on more protein intake.
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