How much protein do teens need and what are the best sources of protein for teens? Here are the need-to-know facts.
The protein obsession seemed to happen overnight for my teen boys.
Suddenly they were studying food labels, putting protein bars on the grocery list, and cooking eggs for breakfast after sets of push-ups and sit-ups.
It’s common for kids, especially boys, to get fixated on building muscle in their teen years. And between TikTok videos and chatter from friends, they’re hearing lots of messages about how to fuel muscle-building with protein.
But not all the messages they’re getting about protein are accurate or healthy.
Want to help your teenager fuel the right way? Here are the facts you should know about protein for teens.
Why do teenagers need protein?
We all need protein. But teenagers are going through an incredible amount of growth and change, and protein is needed for many things happening like making hormones and enzymes, building skin and muscle tissue, and supporting the immune system.
Protein foods also tend to be filling, so protein helps make meals and snacks more satisfying and keep kids (and adults!) fuller longer.
Quick science primer: Protein is made up of 20 different amino acids. In school, we were taught to think of these as beads on a string. Just like you can take beads off a string and arrange them in different ways, you can rearrange amino acids to make different kinds of proteins.
The body can make some of those 20 amino acids, but nine of them must come from the food we eat. If you’ve ever heard of a “complete protein”, that means it contains all nine of those “essential” amino acids we need to get from food.
How much protein for teens is enough?
This is the Recommended Daily Allowance (RDA) for protein, the minimum amount needed for basic needs:
- Ages 9-13: 34 grams
- Ages 14-18: 52 grams (boys), 46 grams (girls)
Remember, these are just the minimum amounts to meet basic needs. Most people eating a typical diet get more than this, and that’s okay. See how much protein kids of all ages need.
Ideally, protein should be eaten throughout the day, instead of front-loading with a big egg-breakfast then skimping the rest of the day–or eating very little all day followed by a huge dinner.
Do most kids get enough protein?
Yes. Most kids get more than enough for basic needs. According to government surveys from 2017-2018, here’s how much protein kids get:
- Ages 6-11: boys 68.8 grams; girls 60.7 grams (RDA is 19-34 grams for this age group)
- Ages 12-19: boys 86.5 grams; girls 62.0 grams (RDA is 34-53 grams for this age group)
The reality is that most kids get plenty of protein–even if meat isn’t their favorite food. That’s because protein is found in a whole bunch of places, like bread, pasta, cheese, and even vegetables. For most healthy kids, protein needs aren’t hard to meet.
Do teen athletes need more protein?
Yes. Teens who exercise need extra protein for a few things: rebuilding muscle that was damaged during exercise (a normal part of the process), supplying energy for workouts, and building new muscle.
According to Nancy Clark’s Sports Nutrition Guidebook, here’s a calculation for the amount of protein growing teenage athletes need:
- 0.7-0.9 grams of protein per pounds of body weight
- For a 130-pound teenager, that’s 91-117 grams of protein per day
Protein should be spread across the day. Clark suggests dividing total protein by 4-6 meals/snacks throughout the day. So if a 130-pound teen eats three meals plus a snack, that’s roughly 25 grams of protein each time.
I don’t advocate counting up every gram (or teaching your kid to tally up grams, which can lead to an unhealthy fixation). Instead, serve regular balanced meals and come up with protein-rich meal and snack ideas together. Tap the link below to get a printable list of 25 ideas.
Can protein help build muscle for teen athletes?
Yes and no. Muscles don’t get bigger from eating more protein. They get bigger from exercise, primarily lifting weights and other kinds of strength training.
Protein from food helps the body repair and build that muscle.
Make sure your teen understands that if they eat more protein than they need, it’s not stored as extra muscle. Extra protein doesn’t equal extra muscle! Extra protein is either used as a source of energy, or it’s stored as fat.
Should teens eat protein before or after exercise?
Simple, easy-to-digest carbohydrates are ideal fuel before exercise. But if teens are doing weight lifting and other strength training, adding in protein is smart, since protein supplies the muscles with amino acids during workouts and may even help reduce muscle damage that occurs during exercise, according to Clark.
Examples of pre-workout fuel with both carbs and protein:
- Bowl of cereal with milk
- Crackers and string cheese
- Banana spread with peanut butter
Protein is also needed AFTER exercise to repair and rebuild muscles that have been taxed during a workout–ideally a protein-carb combo in the first 45 minutes after a workout, according to Clark.
How much protein do teens need after exercise? According to Clark’s book, here’s a calculation for the amount of protein that optimizes muscle building:
0.12-1.15 grams of protein per pound of body weight within the first two hours after weight training.
So for that 130-pound teenager, it’s about 16-20 grams of protein. That’s the amount in two eggs and a piece of toast or a cup of Greek yogurt with berries. See my full list of ideas below.
Is protein powder safe for teenagers?
Protein powder is an easy way to add protein to things like smoothies, pancakes, and homemade bars–or mixed with milk and water for a quick drink.
But here are a few things to keep in mind:
- Protein powders tend to be highly-processed and contain ingredients like artificial sweeteners and thickeners (read about my advice on highly-processed foods).
- Some powders contain high amounts of protein. A tub my teen brought home provides 30 grams of protein in a two-scoop serving. Combined with a cup of milk, that’s 38 grams in one shake–overkill for his needs.
- Many protein powders are considered supplements, which aren’t regulated in the same way that foods and drugs are. According to the FDA, they don’t have to be proven safe before they’re marketed. They also don’t have to prove they contain what they claim.
- A 2018 report from a nonprofit called Clean Label Project found heavy metals like arsenic and lead in many leading protein powders (including plant-based and organic powders). It’s important to note that the Clean Label Project sells “approved” products from their site. But tests done in 2010 by Consumer Reports showed similar results.
- Some protein powders contain very little carbohydrate–in some cases, just a few grams. If teens combine it with water to make a drink, they’re not getting enough carbohydrate to refuel after workouts.
- Protein powders tend to be pricey.
As dietitians, we often tell people that it’s best to get nutrients from food. That’s because it’s the interaction of ALL the components of a food that work together for health benefits, not one isolated nutrient like protein.
For example, edamame contains protein but also fiber, iron, and B vitamins. Milk contains protein, but also calcium and potassium. Those nutrients work together for health.
Bottom line: Protein powder can be easy and convenient, but it’s better to go for whole foods more often.
For a less processed protein powder, make your own: Here’s a simple recipe for Homemade Protein Powder from Teaspoon of Spice that uses just four ingredients.
Here are recommendations for specific protein powders for teen athletes from sports dietitian Jenna Braddock from Off-Season Athlete.
What about protein bars?
Like powders, they’re a convenient way to get protein, especially if your kid is busy and eating on-the-go.
But as with protein powder, these bars are expensive, highly-processed, and tend to contain a lot of ingredients. They’re fine in a pinch, but less processed whole foods are smarter choices most of the time.
Is it better to get protein from meat?
Meat and other animal foods contain what’s called “high-quality” or “complete” protein. That means those foods have all the amino acids the body needs to get from food.
Animal foods tend to pack a lot of protein. For example, a three-ounce piece of beef has 26 grams–that’s about half the RDA for a teen girl (remember that RDAs are only the minimum amount to meet needs).
But some foods besides meat are complete proteins too, including:
- Eggs (including the yolk)
- Soy foods like edamame and tofu
- Dairy foods like milk and yogurt
Many other foods contain protein, including grains and vegetables. That’s why vegetarian and vegan kids can get enough protein from food without eating meat, as long as they take care to include sources like beans, lentils, nuts, soy foods (like tofu and soy milk), and whole grains.
Even though not all meatless forms of protein are complete proteins, eating a variety of them throughout the day supplies the body with essential amino acids.
Can teens get too much protein?
Yes. And if they’re eating a pretty typical diet plus using protein shakes and bars on a daily basis, it’s possible they are.
Regularly eating too much protein can be dehydrating, because as protein breaks down, the body excretes one of the waste products in urine. Extra protein can also be stored as fat, so it may lead to weight gain.
If your teen is loading up on protein to bulk up, they should know this: There’s evidence the body can’t use more than about 25 grams of protein at one time to build muscle.
Lastly, teens might focus on protein at the expense of other nutrients like carbohydrates. That’s a bad idea since carbs are crucial for supplying energy to the brain and body. Carb-rich foods like fruits and whole grains also contain fiber, vitamins, minerals, and disease-fighting plant compounds that teens really need.
Can teens get too little protein?
Yes. That’s especially possible if teens are restricting their diets for weight loss and not eating enough calories in general.
It can also happen if your teen goes vegetarian or vegan by simply cutting out animal foods–without including other protein sources like beans, lentils, and soy.
If your teen is an extremely picky eater, they might also be skimping on protein.
In those cases, focus on including more protein-rich foods in meals and snacks. Supplementing with protein powders or bars might also be in order–check with your pediatrician, or better yet, a pediatric dietitian if you’re concerned.
What are the best protein foods for teenagers?
Many foods contain protein–and some may surprise you! Check out my list of 50 meat-free protein foods. Below are some especially protein-rich ideas. Tap the link below to get a printable list.
Meals and snacks with 10-15 grams of protein
- 1 Babybel cheese + 10 Triscuits crackers
- 1 cup roasted chickpeas
- 1 4-ounce cup cottage cheese + sliced fruit
- 1 Quinoa Peanut Butter Bar + 1 cup milk
- Cheesy Baked Potato: 1 medium baked potato topped with ½ cup steamed broccoli and ¼ cup ounce shredded cheese
- Banana spread with 2 tablespoons chocolate Sunbutter and rolled in ¼ cup granola
- Peanut Butter Breakfast Shake
- 1 cup cooked pasta mixed with 1/2 cup peas topped with Parmesan or nutritional yeast
- 1 ounce beef jerky
- ¼ cup hummus with 1 medium pita and ½ baby carrots
- 2 Nut-Free Snack Bites + 1 cup milk (dairy or soy)
- 4 Veggie Nuggets with ketchup
- ½ cup quick oats mixed with ½ cup milk and topped with berries, ¼ cup walnut pieces, and a drizzle of honey
- 2 Lentil Chocolate Chip Cookies + 1 cup milk (dairy or soy)
Meals and snacks with 15-20 grams of protein
- Green salad topped with 1 pouch tuna + 6 Triscuits
- 1 cup edamame in pods with 1 cup chocolate milk
- 1 cup vanilla Greek yogurt with berries
- Bean & Cheese Quesadilla: Whole wheat tortilla spread with with ¼ cup refried beans and topped with 1 ounce shredded cheese
- 2 scrambled eggs with 1 slice whole wheat toast
- Turkey sandwich: 1 slice deli turkey w/ 1 ounce cheese, mustard, and lettuce on 2 slices whole wheat bread
- Berry Smoothie: 1 cup milk (dairy or soy), ¼ cup homemade protein powder, 1 spoonful Greek yogurt, and ½ cup frozen fruit
- 1 cup cheese tortellini with ¼ cup pesto
- 1 vegetarian “chicken” patty with 1 slice cheese and lettuce on a bun
- 2 string cheese w/ 6 Triscuits
- 4 Tofu Nuggets with Peanut Sauce
- Chocolate Peanut Butter Cereal Smoothie Bowl
The protein amounts shown for each food are based on estimates using the USDA Nutrient Database and product labels. The label on your particular bread, cereal, pasta, or yogurt may list a different amount. I DO NOT recommend obsessing over or counting up each gram of protein your child gets. This is just to give you meal and snack ideas that are protein-rich.
Here’s what we do about protein
I rarely buy protein powder. Between the contamination issue, the price, and the fact that it’s a highly-processed product (that my kids likely don’t need), it’s not something I regularly stock.
When I do buy it, I look for brands that have shorter ingredient lists. I haven’t found a flavored powder without artificial sweeteners, but Nature’s Basket (Giant Eagle store brand) doesn’t have a strong aftertaste. I also like the flavor of Publix store-brand protein powder.
(Want an unsweetened protein powder? You can find brands that make unflavored varieties too.)
My older teen uses protein powder after gym workouts. Since he wanted to mix it with milk, I advised him to use less powder. That saves money and adds the nutrition of milk. I also encourage him to alternate with plenty of whole food protein sources too.
I try to stock the fridge with protein-rich grab-and-go items they like such as:
- Quinoa Peanut Butter Chocolate Bars (6g each)
- Nut-Free Snack Bites (6g for 2 Bites)
- Ham & Cheese Pinwheels (11g each)
- Protein Waffles (20g each and no protein powder–I add two tablespoons of honey to the batter)
- Individual cups of yogurt
- Cheese sticks
- Milk (including flavored milk)
- Cooked, sliced chicken breasts (I love this stovetop method)
- Containers of dinner leftovers
If protein obsession hits your house, I hope you’ll now feel more confident about feeding your teen too!
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