This summer, my 12-year-old played four or more hours of baseball including fitness training every day. During this stretch, he developed a new interest in building muscle and spent a lot of time admiring his developing six-pack abs. He argued that he needed extra protein to fuel his workouts and build his muscles, and proposed buying protein powders like the ones advertised on ESPN. I agreed with him that his body required more nutrients during this period of intensified training than it would on a lazy summer day, but I disagreed that the solution was a chemical protein powder.
The Institute of Medicine recommends a daily allowance of:
•34 grams for 13-year-old children
•46 grams for girls ages 14 to 18
•52 grams for boys ages 14 to 18
Some protein powders provide 80 grams of protein per serving. This is considerably more than a growing child needs in one day, let alone in one serving.
Imagine what that child might eat in one day: An ideal breakfast might be a cup of whole yogurt with fruit and granola (10 grams of protein); lunch could be a cup of bean chili with a sliced avocado (18 grams of protein), followed by dinner of three ounces of chicken, one cup of brown rice and a serving of green beans (30 grams of protein). That child just consumed 58 grams of whole-food protein so he surely doesn’t need to supplement his diet with a processed powder.
Barbara Lewin, a dietitian and sports nutritionist who has worked with professional and Olympic athletes, explains, “To add one pound of muscle, the body needs a additional 10 grams to 14 grams of protein per day.” That’s what comes in one cup of plain, whole yogurt or 2 fried eggs. If your child is already eating three balanced meals and perhaps a nutritious snack, he might already be getting those extra grams.
Protein powders therefore seem unwarranted, especially when too much protein can have the undesirable affect of stressing the kidneys and liver and possibly interfering in the body’s ability to absorb calcium. To boot, excess protein is often converted into fat instead of transforming into muscle mass. One study has also shown that as protein intake increases, so does a body’s need for water, so if your children are increasing their daily protein, be sure they drink more water.
Protein powders can be made from different ingredients; the most common are whey, casein, soy, pea, rice and hemp. Each variety carries its own pros and cons. For instance, whey is a complete protein that is easily digested and absorbed into the bloodstream. Whey protein concentrate is preferable to whey protein isolate. Yet, whey and casein proteins are both derived from dairy so people who are lactose intolerant may have a difficult time digesting them. Soy is a potential allergen and a majority of the soy in the United States has been genetically modified, which can be a health concern. Pea, rice and hemp are not complete proteins so are best used to supplement other sources of whole-food protein instead of as a meal replacement.
Nothing is wrong with supplementing a balanced diet with the occasional smoothie that includes a scoop of protein powder. The danger arises when someone, especially a growing youth, uses these powders instead of eating enough whole foods.
Additional risks emerge when a teen consumes large volumes of these processed powders. Many are loaded with sugar and unhealthful ingredients such as artificial flavorings, artificial sweeteners, untested herbs, antibiotics, and heavy metals. Many are not even regulated by the FDA. Both Consumer Reports and ConsumerLab.com have conducted independent tests uncovering that many brands contain toxic chemicals and other undisclosed ingredients, while other brands were found guilty of exaggerating the amount of nutrients they supply.
When buying a protein powder, look for these characteristics:
• Few ingredients and additives. The ideal protein powder would include just the main protein source and nothing else. In other words, a whey protein powder would include whey protein concentrate as the sole ingredient, and a pea protein powder would list peas as the only ingredient. Also, don’t fall for sales gimmicks that advertise extra vitamins, super foods or probiotics in a powder. Chances are the small amounts of these added benefits render them ineffective.
• Free of sugar and artificial sweeteners.
• Low in heavy metals and toxins. Small amounts of heavy metals are inevitable in our food supply, but consuming a product that contains heavy metals on a daily basis (or in some cases many times a day) can be damaging.
• Organic and non-GMO.
• A GMP (Good Manufacturing Practices) label verifying that the product was manufactured in a facility following best industry standards and therefore discloses all ingredients.
Beware of the lure of “energy” as powders advertised as such might include caffeine-containing ingredients (coffee, cocoa, guarana, and mate) that stimulate yet don’t actually provide long-lasting energy.
And be wary of the promise of natural flavors. The FDA allows something to be labeled “natural” if the original source is a natural product, even though undisclosed items may be added to that natural product during processing. For instance, in order to remove oils from the soy, hemp, rice or peas so they don’t turn rancid on the shelves, the grains and beans are often treated using chemicals that may remain on the food.
I’ve seen the advertisements that portray big muscles and protein powders as awfully appealing, and I see why my boys fall prey to them; yet there are healthier alternatives to help kids get the nutrients they need while healthfully building muscle. A smoothie packed with one of the following whole food proteins offers vitamins, minerals and healthful fats, and quite possibly puts any chemically-powdered shake to shame.
•Nut or seed butters
•Ground flaxseeds, chia seeds or hemp seeds
•Coconut milk (5 grams of protein per cup)
•Raw oats soaked overnight in water then drained (6 grams of protein per cup)
•Raw cacao nibs (4 grams of protein per 1 ounce serving plus antioxidants, vitamins, and minerals)
•Dark leafy greens such as spinach (5 grams of protein per cup plus vitamins, minerals and chlorophyll)
•An avocado (4 grams of protein plus healthful fats)
Seidenberg is co-founder of Nourish Schools, a D.C.-based nutrition education company, and co-author of “The Super Food Cards,” a collection of healthful recipes and advice.