As a mum of three boys, two of whom are in their early teens, I spend much of my weekend on the sidelines watching them play sport. What I love about this is that it’s a great opportunity to catch up with their friend’s parents and have a chat. Recently the conversation turned to protein powders. I was surprised to find that protein powder use in teenagers, for the purposes of ‘bulking up’ or improving performance, is more widespread than I realised, and there’s so much confusion about whether they are good or bad for teens.
Are protein powders good for teenagers?
The short answer is no. For a more in-depth answer please read on.
What is the ideal nutrient balance for active teenagers?
Carbohydrates are the primary source of fuel during exercise and the preferred energy source for the body and brain. For active teenagers, carbohydrates should provide around 55-60% of total energy intake, protein around 12-15% with the remainder from healthy fats.
How much protein does a teenager need?
For active teenagers who are training 2-3 times a week and playing sport on the weekend, protein requirements are around 1.5 to 2.0 g/kg/day of body weight. For example, a 70kg teenager requires 105 to 140g of protein per day. This amount of protein is easily achieved through a healthy balanced diet. Consuming more protein than the body can use is unnecessary.
Why is it better to get protein from food rather than a supplement?
Teenagers have high nutrient needs because it is a period of rapid growth and physical and intellectual development. High protein foods contain many essential nutrients that teenagers require. Eating protein from a variety of sources will ensure that these nutrient needs are met. Many protein powders contain just pure protein without any other nutrients and are therefore known as “empty calories”.
Which foods contain protein?
Aim to eat protein from a wide variety of sources to ensure you are covering all the essential nutrients, such as beef, lamb, pork, chicken, fish and seafood, eggs, dairy foods (milk, cheese, yoghurt), nuts and nut butters, seeds, legumes (beans, chickpeas, lentils), soy products (soy milk, tofu).
What’s all the fuss about whey protein?
If you look at the various protein powders on the market, you’ll find most of them are based on whey protein isolate. Whey protein comes from cow’s milk protein. Cow’s milk protein is made from two proteins, 20% whey and 80% casein. Whey protein is a complete protein, meaning it contains all the essential amino acids (EAAs) and has a high proportion of the branched-chain amino acid (BCAA) leucine, a key amino acid in the stimulation of muscle protein synthesis. Whey protein is also easily digestible and rapidly exits the stomach. So, there is science behind its use.
It is worth noting that animal products (chicken, beef, fish, dairy products, eggs) and soy products have all the essential amino acids and are also known as ‘complete’ protein (or ideal or high-quality protein).
What are the risks of using protein powders?
- They shift the balance of nutrients. When active teenagers consume diets that are too high in protein or consume protein powders that are low in carbohydrates, they may affect their ability to train, compete at peak levels, and recover.
- Filling up on synthetic protein powders can reduce the intake of essential nutrients found in real foods.
- Taking large amounts of protein or amino acid supplements can also lead to dehydration, urinary loss of calcium, weight gain, and stress on the kidneys and liver because protein requires almost seven times more water for metabolism than fat or carbohydrates.
- They may contain harmful ingredients. It is important to note that protein powders made in Australia must comply with The Therapeutic Goods Administration (TGA) and must meet strict testing and Good Manufacturing Practices (GMP). Read labels carefully. Avoid buying cheap protein powders online that are made in less-credible factories such as China and South-East Asia. There are cases of protein supplements testing positive for synthetic hormones, heavy metals, microbiological agents, and other harmful substances. Furthermore, powders that are sold as ‘pre-workout’ supplements are often high in caffeine or other stimulants and should be avoided by teenagers.
- They can potentially increase the risk of developing an eating disorder. When you look at the packaging and websites of many of these products, they are aimed at body image of either bulking up or weight loss. Teenagers are a particularly vulnerable group when it comes to body image and we need to shift the focus to being fit and healthy and nourishing our bodies with real food.
What should my teenager eat before and after exercise?
Choose foods high in carbohydrate, that also contain some lean protein and a source of fluid and electrolytes for hydration. Dairy foods such as flavoured milk, smoothies or fruit yoghurt are a great option as they provide carbohydrate, protein, fluid and electrolytes all in one. Some other suitable options include:
- Sandwich or wrap with salad and protein (e.g. cheese, chicken, tuna, egg)
- Bowl of high fibre cereal (e.g. muesli or oats) with yoghurt and berries
- Fruit salad and Greek yoghurt sprinkled with seeds or nuts
- Leftovers containing a carbohydrate and protein, e.g. spaghetti bolognaise
- Sushi with salmon or tuna filling
- Crackers or rice cakes with cottage cheese and salad
What if my teenager is too busy to eat?
Busy teenagers don’t always have time to sit down and eat a balanced meal or snack. If your teenager enjoys a smoothie or insists on a protein shake, I suggest the following:
- Make a smoothie, e.g. 1 cup milk, ¼ cup Greek yoghurt, ½ cup fruit (berries or banana), and 1 tablespoon almond butter. Adding two tablespoons of skim milk powder from the supermarket also adds a protein boost and is a much cheaper option than commercial protein powders.
- Choose a commercial supplement that contains a balanced nutrient profile (rather than just protein) including carbohydrate, protein and a range of vitamins and minerals, e.g. Sustagen Sport, or Sustagen Optimum. These products contain whey protein concentrate as their protein source which is why I recommend them.
- If your teenager insists on using a whey protein isolate, choose a product that is made in Australia and mix it with real food containing carbohydrate, e.g. milk or yoghurt with fruit, and limit it to one serve per day.
Protein powder supplements are not recommended for teenagers. Teach your teenager that food is there to be enjoyed and should not be over-complicated or over-analysed. Encourage regular meals and snacks based on carbohydrates and containing lean protein. Good nutrition is simple, eat fresh unprocessed foods from a wide variety of sources and enjoy your treats!
I have no affiliation with any of the products mentioned in this article.
- Anne Z Hoch et al, Nutritional Requirements of the Child and Teenage Athlete. Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation Clinics of North America, Volume 19, Issue 2, May 2008, Pages 373-398
- Yager, Z., McLean, S. Muscle building supplement use in Australian adolescent boys: relationships with body image, weight lifting, and sports engagement. BMC Pediatr 20, 89 (2020).