Protein is a nutrient that is absolutely essential to children's (and indeed adults too) growth and development. Protein exists in all of our body organs, cells and tissues. These are continuously renewed by the proteins we eat and produce naturally.
Protein is made up of amino acids. The body produces some amino acids (these are termed non-essential) but it is vital you provide your child with the essential amino acids via food that the body cannot produce itself.
It is extremely important that children get high quality low fat proteins in sufficient quantities. Protein can be used as energy especially during heavy exercise or during starvation mode which essentially causes muscle wasting so this should be replaced. However, energy is normally provided by carbohydrates or fats primarily.
For non-vegetarians, poultry, meat, fish, and eggs can provide a total protein source and milk or cheese are also excellent protein providers. Nuts, seeds, legumes are reasonable protein providers and there is a small amount in fruit and cereals too. Some of the best vegetarian protein providers are lentils, various beans (kidney, mung, white, lima), chickpeas, nuts (walnuts, brazil, pecans etc.) and seeds (sesame, pumpkin etc.).
Effects of Lack of protein in my child's diet?
In the western world it is rare to get severe lacks of protein but it can sometimes happen in poorer areas where meat is not on the agenda due to cost and alternative foods are not protein rich. This can lead to fatigue, some weight loss due to muscle wasting and slow growth rate and possibly poor mental development. Some complicated but rare medical conditions that prevent an uptake of protein can exist too.
In the 3rd world where severe protein malnutrition exists then a severe medical condition called Kwashiorkor can result which usually takes the physical resemblance of anorexia with a severely enlarged abdomen.
The advice, as always, is to consult your medical professional if you have any health concerns for your child.
Recommended Protein Levels for Children
The daily Recommended Dietary Allowances (RDA) given by the United Stated CDC (Center for Disease and Control) are as follows:
|Children aged 1-3||13 g per day|
|Children aged 4-8||19 g per day|
|Children aged 9-13||34 g per day|
|Females aged 14-18||46 g per day|
|Males aged 14-18||52 g per day|
What happens if my child eats too much protein
In the main there aren't too many issues with this, as long as the protein source is not also full of saturated fat. People with normal kidney and liver functions should be able to handle a reasonable level of protein excess. It will just be excreted via waste. If way too much is eaten it can lead to calcium loss and brittle bones as well as putting stress on the kidneys (with a potentially higher chance of kidney issues e.g. kidney stones)
Protein Intolerance and Allergies
There are certain types of proteins that can cause intolerance, allergies or allergic reactions to sensitive children. Some examples of proteins that might cause an allergy are gluten (wheat protein), peanut proteins, seafood proteins or casein (milk protein).
Children with an allergy to a number of food proteins e.g. soya beans, milk, eggs, peanuts etc. are described as multiple food protein intolerant (MFPI). If the intolerance is definitely only milk and soy it is more accurately described as Milk/Soy Protein Intolerance MSPI.
Food Protein-Induced Enterocolitis Syndrome (F-PIES) is a food allergy that typically results in vomiting or diarrhoea after ingesting a food or drink.
Consult your health professional / doctor immediately if you suspect your child suffers from this.
What is a good strategy to ensure my child gets enough protein?
The key is to find giving your child an adequate high quality supply of protein is to check out our resource links and find out what your child's recommended daily protein intake should be. Then pick out multiple high protein food sources which you can best afford to buy and your child will eat. You may have to compromise but finding a middle ground solution is often the best. Then build some recipes around it.
The best way to increase protein intake to your children is to slowly increase over 6 months. If you add a small amount every month your child probably won't even notice. Don't make a big fuss of it. Keep the diet balanced with proper hydration too.
Children must eat regular protein from good varied sources such as poultry, meat, fish, milk, eggs, nuts, legumes etc. This is essential to their growth, strength and development. It can also help reduce the chances of health issues such as obesity, slow growth rate etc.
Typical values of protein from various food sources are given in this resource. All values are based on 100g base weight and the amount of protein, carbohydrates and fat is given for over fifty foods including 'Cottage Cheese', 'Couscous', 'Eggs', 'Venison (Deer meat)', 'Turkey Breast (Skinless)', 'Yogurt' and 'Tilapia Fish'.
This resource explains this allergy to protein suffered by some children. It can give symptoms include profuse vomiting, diarrhoea and dehydration.
This resource contains advice about MFPI. A poorly developed digestive system can cause allergy-type symptoms (e.g. colic or pains to the abdomen). Solutions include tailored nutrition including cutting out certain foods [elimination diet] and chiropractics.