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Protein and Adolescent Athletes

Today's wonder supplement? Protein. Supplement marketing would have us believe that if you take enough protein, you just sit back and watch the muscles grow. Protein and adolescent athletes should go hand in hand, but there is care to be taken in the amount and kind that they receive.

Young athletes turn to coaches, parents and teammates to make nutritional decisions. Many of these individuals lack the basic understanding of nutritional needs (particularly for athletes), to give proper guidance. Here is some straight talk on protein.

The real truth - too much protein is bad

protein is beneficial to a body to the extent that the body needs it. For athletes, this need surpasses that of the non-athlete, but it isn't limitless. Actually, taking to much protein, like too much carbs or fat, will only provide the body more energy (calories) than it can use. And by now, we all know that when the body gets more than it can use, it simply stores it as body fat.

You can't build muscle simply by eating lots of protein. Protein is a building block that repairs and grows muscle, but only as the body demands that it do so. No exercise, means no noticeable change in muscle growth.

Too little protein can under-fuel an athlete

Too little protein: the body has to supply it itself, which means that the body cannot rebuild muscles broken down through exercise, or build additional muscle to support what an athlete has.

Jenna A. Bell-Wilson, PhD, RD, CSSD, who is a certified specialist in sports dietetics in Arlington, Mass., says that young athletes with inadequate diets may have insufficient fuel for workouts, nutrient deficiencies that can lead to illness or fatigue, a decrement in bone growth and maintenance, and may not reach their potential for muscle growth. All of these will be reflected in their performance, regardless of their determination.1

So where is the protein balance?

Protein and Young Athlete removing shirt

For athletes age 13-19, 0.5-0.8 grams of protein are needed each day for every pound of body weight. That translates simply to 50-80% of their body weight (in grams). The younger end of this age spectrum would skew toward the higher need for protein.

For non-athletes, that number is lower, at approximately 0.4-0.5 grams per pound.

As an example, a 13 year old boy weighting 110 pounds would require 55-88 grams of protein per day, while a 15 year old girl weighing 100 pounds would require 50-80 grams. The heavier the athlete and the more demanding their training, the more protein is needed to repair and build muscle.2

Best protein choices

Not all protein choices are created equal. Knowing which sources provide the most protein with the least sugar and excess carbs is important. Here is a short list of high qualify sources of protein for your young athlete.

Protein Sources for Young Athletes (Meats)

Ground Beef, 4 ounces : 29 grams

Fish, Salmon, 4 ounces : 29 grams

Chicken Breast, 4 ounces : 27 grams

Greek Yogurt, 1 cup : 12-15 grams

Milk, 1 Cup : 8 grams

Yogurt, 1 Cup : 8 grams

Eggs, 1 egg : 7 grams

Cheese, 1 ounce : 7 grams

Quinoa, 1/2 cup : 4 grams

What if my family is vegan?

According to, People on vegetarian diets get proteins that are largely incomplete because, except for soybeans, they have low levels of one or more essential amino acids. By pairing plant foods that balance each other's shortfalls however, vegan proteins can be made complete.

Examples of proper pairings include:

  • A grain and a legume

  • Peanut butter on wheat bread

  • black-eyed peas and rice

Protein Supplements - Beware

Young Athlete and Shot Put

Protein supplements can be good where enough protein is not available through foods. However, supplements can also lead to significant over-consumption of protein. And using protein supplements where it provides excessive protein intake, can tax the kidneys and promote dehydration.3

There is nothing inherently wrong with good quality whey protein supplements. Just be aware that these supplements are not highly regulated by the FDA, so purchasing only reputable and researched products would be advised.

Proper fueling involves more than protein

If a young athlete (or his parents) is serious about proper development, then more than protein should be taken into consideration. Proper macronutrient and micronutrient intake are just as important.

Micronutrients - Here are some recommendations from Pamela Nisevich, SM RD, LD, on recommended intake of vital micronutrients.

Young Strong Athlete


Benefits: Bone growth, bone mass, aid in nerve impulses and muscle contraction


Benefits: Oxygen carrying capacity, energy metabolism of carbohydrates, proteins and fats

B Vitamins

Benefits: Energy metabolism and blood health


Benefits: wound healing, tissue growth and maintenance, and immune function

Macronutrients - the three major nutrient blocks: carbohydrates, proteins, fat


In athletes, low carbohydrate intake will result in low glycogen stores, leading to fatigue when you need energy. Glucose is required to make the body work during exercise. If glucose is not available, the body steals from its protein stores. Carbohydrates convert to glycogen, but this dissipates, explaining why we must continually eat carbohydrates to fuel activity.


As the basis of this article, we already know that protein is important to building, maintaining and repairing muscle.4


Fat is essential to light to moderate intensity exercise and for endurance exercise.

Balance is key

LIke little red riding hood, finding what is "just right" is key. There is a window of course. You can't "dial in" protein intake to perfection without making life miserable (at least I would find it miserable). Ensuring that you are eating the right types of foods, with the proper amount per day to hit your protein needs is key.

As always, we recommending avoiding empty carbs and sugars. If you teach your athlete to think of their food as fuel, it can go a long way to their understanding why some things "burn" better than others in the body, and make the fire (performance) burn hotter.

Protein and Adults

So protein is really important to our kids, but what about adults? We won't delve into that here, but you can learn more at FIT LIFE COVERED on that topic.

1. Sports Nutrition for Young Athletes: Vital to Victory, Pamela M Nisevich, SM, RD, LD, March 2008

2. How Teen Athletes Can Build Muscle with Protein, By Jill Castle, MS, RDN, June 24, 2015

3. How Teen Athletes Can Build Muscle with Protein, By Jill Castle, MS, RDN, June 24, 2015

4. Nutrition Management in Young Athletes, Spear BA, 2003

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