Parents want a great start in life for their children. Education, security, health—these are the foundations for a strong beginning. And nutrition, including adequate protein, plays an important role for both physical and cognitive health.
Adequate protein is essential for maintaining the body’s protein stores and keeping many bodily functions running smoothly. Due to the demands of growth and development, getting adequate protein is particularly important during infancy, childhood, and adolescence.
Protein is one nutrient that is especially well-characterized as a building block. It is stored primarily in muscle and collagen, but it is not just a supporting player. Protein and its component amino acids function as hormones, enzymes, and transporters of other nutrients.
Unique needs for children
From the day a baby is born until it reaches adulthood, its protein needs are significantly higher per pound of body weight than an adult needs. Why? The body is growing, developing, and demanding lots of nutrients to get these jobs done. Proteins are also necessary and unique components, including hormones and enzymatic proteins, critical for the developing brain and immune system and the growth of the body’s supporting structures (muscle, collagen, hair).
The growth needs alone are significant. A baby’s weight doubles by five months and quadruples by two years. On average, height doubles by three or four years. During childhood, growth is slower and steadier than in infancy, with weight increasing four to seven pounds, and height by a couple inches per year. Most girls reach adult height during the early high school years, and boys typically reach their adult height as they are leaving high school.
Childhood protein requirements
The amount of protein a child should eat is relative to body weight. As age increases, the rate of growth slows, and the amount of protein needed per pound decreases. Height and weight continue to accrue, however, so that both total calorie and total protein needs are higher—not only to fuel growth but also to serve as hormones and other components critical for child and adolescent development.
Because individual needs vary, acceptable ranges for protein intake have also been determined and are expressed below as a percentage of total calories for one year of age and older. For children one to three years old, protein can make up five to 20 percent of total calories, and for those four to 18 years old, 10 to 30 percent of total calories.
|Protein Needs Throughout Childhood*|
|Age||Protein (g/kg)||Protein (g/lb)||% Calories from Protein (Acceptable Range)|
|0 to 6 months||1.52||0.69||NA|
|7 to 12 months||1.2||0.55||NA|
|1 to 3 years||1.05||0.48||5-20%|
|4 to 8 years||0.95||0.43||10-30%|
|9 to 13 years||0.95||0.43||10-30%|
|14 to 18 years||0.85||0.39||10-30%|
|*This table reflects the Dietary Reference Intakes for protein, published by the Institute of Medicine in 2005.|
For example, a five-year-old boy who is moderately active would need about 1,400 calories per day, according to the MyPyramid Plan. If he weighed 40 pounds, he would need approximately 17 g protein per day (based on 40 pounds X 0.43 grams protein per pound body weight). At 4 calories per gram, those 17 g of protein account for 68 calories or about five percent of his 1,400 calories for the day. These calculations are only a starting point for determining individual needs, as the Dietary Reference Intakes suggest the amount of protein believed to cover the needs of most individuals in the group. Needs for an individual child can be determined with his or her doctor or registered dietitian.
Does the source of protein matter?
The Institute of Medicine recommends that both quality and quantity are important aspects of protein needs during childhood. The 2010 Report of the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee also notes the importance of high quality protein for children, due to high growth and development demands. While the Committee recommends consuming more fruits, vegetables, whole grains, beans, nuts, and seeds for reducing risk of chronic disease and ensuring nutrient adequacy, they do not recommend eliminating animal foods. On the contrary, the Committee points out that animal foods provide a higher quality and greater quantity of protein per calorie, a combination that is particularly valuable during childhood.
The question of protein quality also is important to consider within the context of foods in the overall diet. If a child eats enough protein, but is not eating enough food to meet calorie needs, protein is used for energy rather than for its irreplaceable roles in muscle mass development and maintenance and hormone production. Eating adequate amounts of animal-rich protein sources, such as eggs, milk, dairy products, poultry, fish, and beef, can ensure that a child gets nutrients like choline, vitamin B12, calcium, zinc, iron and/or long-chain omega-3 fatty acids not easily found in, or utilized from, plant foods. Protein-rich plant foods, such as beans, soy foods, nuts, seeds, and brown rice, can contribute to total protein intake and can give a child more fiber and a wide range of vitamins and minerals. Choosing foods from all of the food groups helps children and adolescents to meet both nutrient and calorie needs and reduce risk of many chronic diseases.
The key to balancing calorie and protein needs
People of all ages have food preferences specific to taste, texture, and aroma—children are no exception. Although motivated by different factors in each stage of childhood, picky eating is a hallmark of the toddler years. These childhood food preferences are important to consider along with the high physiological need for protein and other nutrients. The ups and downs of children’s eating behaviors may seem like a roller coaster ride for caregivers. Feeding children requires balancing efforts to ensure nutritional adequacy, to encourage appreciation of a wide variety of flavors and textures, and to respect preferences. A child who rejects chicken may love black beans or beef. One who refuses milk may devour yogurt. Including a range of protein-rich foods each day and mixing up offerings of favorites with new foods can help a child get what he needs through the week. Pairing protein-rich foods with those that provide carbohydrates and healthful fats will help to ensure nutritional balance and sufficient calories. When children are active, they need more calories. Protein needs, however, are based on body weight and may not increase with higher activity levels. Therefore, focus on variety from all food groups, protein choices at both meals and snacks, and encouraging children to eat enough to satisfy hunger. Promoting physical activity is important, and children need fuel to play.
On the kids’ eating behavior roller coaster, the dips and turns can bring on confusion when health authorities remind parents that childhood obesity is a crisis. How can caregivers ensure adequate protein and calories, while avoiding overfeeding or underfeeding?
Parents are their children’s role models and children learn how to eat well and in the right quantities by observing their parent’s healthful behaviors. When children are offered a diversity of healthful foods, they will likely choose many (not all) of those foods. When children are taught to eat when they are hungry and stop when full, they often regulate their intake quite well. Ideas for caregivers include the following.
- Eat together at meals.
- Focus on the meal. Serve meals away from distractions such as TV and videos.
- Plan and prepare meals together.
- Offer a balance of three or more food groups at a meal.
- Try a little of everything that is offered. Allow each person to politely express likes and dislikes, but encourage tasting everything that is offered.
- Eat slowly.
- Stop eating when you feel satisfied, rather than overly full. No clean-plate club!
- Think of snacks as mini meals and offer nutrient-packed foods to children. Try fruit, yogurt, peanut butter, and whole wheat crackers.
- Establish regular meal times, with some flexibility around timing.
A place for protein on the plate
Giving children the best start in life requires offering nutrient-rich foods, including protein. Eat enough, eat a variety, and enjoy eating together!