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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.