Protein supplement powders line the shelves now just about anywhere groceries are sold – from Trader Joe’s and Whole Foods to conventional supermarket chains. The choices on-line are even more complex and infinitely varied. Can they work for your kids? Do your kids need them? Are they safe? Yes, maybe, and yes. Here’s the scoop on knowing which ones to use, how, and when.
Do they work? Depends on what you mean by “work”. They do work if your kid needs the support, if your kid uses them consistently (daily), and if you match your kid’s nutrition needs to what’s in the product you’re using. They can help your child grow and gain better, behave and function better, and fight infection better.
But…they don’t work if you choose one your child just won’t eat. Another fail is to choose the wrong protein for your child’s nutritional needs. Ever try a soy or rice protein supplement powder, only to be disappointed? It’s common for these proteins to cause more trouble for kids who don’t tolerate them well. Protein supplements don’t work if you’re using a source that worsens an undiagnosed allergy or sensitivity. This is something I see so often in practice, it’s alarming: Kids will be placed on milk and soy based formulas like Pediasure, Boost, Pepdite, or Ensure when no on screened for allergies first! This can worsen growth, feeding, and progress, not help it. Knowing what type of protein (soy? dairy? egg? hemp? pea? amino acids? meats?) your child needs is important.
They also don’t work if your child doesn’t need the supplement; they probably won’t add any value in that case, and aren’t worth the extra hassle or money, unless your kids just like the stuff and it gives them a fun option to have a daily smoothie boost. Kids who eat a varied diet with plenty of protein sources probably don’t need a supplement. “Varied” means eating more than just one kind of protein. It means your child gets protein from different foods every day, like eggs, green beans, peas, other legumes, or beans …to meats, poultry, nuts, seeds, or grains like quinoa. In contrast, kids who only eat dairy protein all day long (yogurt, milk, cheese, mac and cheese, pizza) are usually not getting an adequate diet. Even when they eat enough total protein daily, if it’s from just one type of food, they can easily drop nutrition in other areas and will suffer deficits as a result.
How much is enough? School age kids who are healthy and growing normally need a bit more than half their weight daily, in grams of protein. So, a child weighing 70 pounds needs at least 40-50 grams of high value protein every day, spread through out the day. Growth failure, allergies, frequent illness, inflammatory conditions change protein needs. Getting professional nutrition guidance will assure your child gets the best food for his or her best health and ability potential. Toddlers and infants have different needs; don’t use off the shelf protein supplements for kids under three, unless you have a knowledgeable pediatric nutritionist or specialist guiding you on what’s best.
When do kids need protein supplements? So often, this can can really help a child out. Several circumstances can drop a child’s protein intake so that they falter, grow weakly, get sick too often, or just can’t function to potential. Functioning to potential means they can grow as expected (they don’t drop more than fifteen percentile points on a growth chart for weight or height). It also means they can do important things like sleep well, play energetically, behave in age appropriate ways, pay attention and focus appropriately for age, handily fight off usual infections, have few infections, and have fun. If your kid struggles in any of these areas more than you think is their “normal”, or if you just have a hunch something is off kilter, the right protein support may make a huge difference. Check this list of reasons to consider supplemental protein powders. Does your toddler, child, or teen fit any of these?
…Refuses protein-rich foods due to texture aversions (gags or vomits or spits out meats, eggs, ground meats, mixed dishes like chili or stews with meats)
…Has a picky appetite, tends to eat only dairy for protein, or only wheat (bagels, pasta, bread, pizza, crackers)
…Has food allergies, sensitivities, or any reactions that limit access to proteins (can’t eat dairy, egg, nuts, gluten, etc)
…Has a history of growth failure or slow growth pattern, is shorter than expected, or has been called “just small” by your doctors
…Has anxiety, poor sleep, night terrors, frequent waking, mood disorders, or conduct disorders
…Lost a school placement due to disruptive behavior
…Gets colds, bugs, sniffy nose often, and takes longer than siblings or friends to shake it off
…Has hair that looks thin or dull, or nails that crack and peel easily
…Cuts seem to heal more slowly than usual
The right protein support can shift all of these problems, sometimes in itself. Other cases may need total nutrition overhaul (such as kids who have low protein, poor total intake, and are deep into an oppositional, aggressive, or ADHD pattern). But starting with strong protein can get your child feeling better. Here’s some ideas.
Whey Protein Powders – About 20% of the protein in cow’s milk is whey, with 80% is casein. You’ve probably seen those giant tubs of whey on store shelves, with muscles all over the label, to appeal to body builders. Skip those. They usually have other ingredients your child doesn’t need (especially sugar, or minerals and vitamins at excessive potencies). You can buy plain, organic, unsweetened whey protein powder (like this) and mix it with cold or warm foods, or even add it to baking recipes. It blends well in smoothies and adds a pleasant fluffy texture. Whey protein – with its good amino acid profile and immunoglobulins – has strong evidence for helping muscle mass and immune function. Babies and kids who don’t do well with casein may do fine with whey, but not always. Blood tests can discern this, when elimination diets are too cumbersome or time consuming to work through; I use both IgG and IgE testing to whey and casein in my practice.
Whey protein is where nature puts the immune power pack, when it comes to milk. In human milk, the ratio is the nearly opposite of cow’s milk: We make milk with only about 40% casein, but 60% whey. Whey has lactalbumin, lactoglobulin, lactoferrin, and other immunoglobulins that fight infection and build immune strength. These cysteine-rich proteins are also excellent glutathione precursors. Glutathione is our go-to molecule to remove toxins, reduce inflammation, and support vigorous immunity. Buying whey that is not denatured ensures that these delicate but potent proteins stay viable. Denatured proteins are proteins that are heated or processed so much, they lose their original shape – and, their original actions as immune modulators. They may also become more allergenic, since their shapes differ from what the body may be able to digest. For my patients, I like Well Wisdom whey protein from grass fed, non-GMO milk.
Soy Protein Powders – Whether it’s in a power bar, a powder, infant formula, or a protein boosted juice drink, I’m not a fan. Soy in the US is overwhelmingly genetically modified. GMO foods are not allowed for human consumption in most the developed world. They are under scrutiny for causing more allergy and many other ill health effects. Soy crops may also concentrate glyphosate, the pesticide recently dubbed “probably” carcinogenic by the World Health Organization.
There are so many reasons why I don’t like concentrated processed GMO soy protein, especially for babies, who are busy developing a healthy gut biome in their first years (glyphosate kills healthy gut bacteria in humans). Healthy gut flora are critical for preventing allergy, asthma, and other vulnerabilities later in childhood or even later in life. Eating food crops engineered to produce their own glyphosate (which is what GMO food crops do) is perhaps one of the most devastating thing we can do to a baby human gut!
More reasons I don’t like soy protein supplements: Unfermented, highly processed, and concentrated soy protein is hard to digest, can bind other nutrients, disrupts thyroid and estrogen function, and may trigger allergy just as often as casein from cow’s milk. I don’t recommend it as daily protein for kids. Eaten from an organic source, in small amounts, in its natural state or fermented, such as in tempeh, miso, shoyu, tamari, or natto – this is fine, but your child will need other proteins. Tofu and edamame are not fermented and I also do not suggest using these as the bulk of daily protein for children. I know opinions vary; this is my take, after nearly twenty years in practice with infants and children.
Rice Protein Powders – Rice lacks lysine, an essential amino acid. That means that by itself, rice is not a good protein source (because humans must eat lysine; we can’t make it ourselves), so most manufacturers add lysine and possibly other amino acids to beef it up. Even rice protein powders that say they are “concentrated” or raw and sprouted can’t match the amino acid profile of animal proteins like whey, meat, or eggs. Rice protein still must to be augmented with some amino acids to work, especially for kids needing a strong protein boost. Besides this drawback, rice protein powders in my experience can feel gritty or grainy, have a strong taste (especially brown rice source), and are often rejected by kids with oral texture issues. Workable if your child is eating some other sources of complete protein, if your or if child just likes the taste of a rice protein product. Best rice option… find an organic sprouted source – here’s a few rice protein product reviews to consider. Or, buy a rice protein that is combined with pea protein, for a more complete, better tasting protein powder.
Pea Protein – On the scene more recently, this may be more palatable than rice protein powders for texture (not gritty or sandy) and for taste (more invisible to lightly sweet). It’s a more complete protein (with lysine and arginine amino acids). Like any plant protein, it has no immune modulators in it as whey does. But for some kids, it may be more digestible than rice protein, and can help get minerals like calcium into bones thanks to its lysine content. It also offers a bit of iron. Down side: Some kids who are soy-sensitive may not tolerate concentrated pea protein very well, as these plants are similar – if your child has loose stools on a pea protein supplement, this can mean an allergy or sensitivity is brewing to soy, pea, or other legumes. Blood test for ELISA IgG can find out.
Hemp Protein – Helpful for kids who can’t manage other proteins due to sensitivity or allergy, but there are mixed reviews on whether it is enough of a boost for kids needing strong support. How the hemp is grown and processed affects its amino acid profile; some hemp protein products claim to have all amino acids essential to humans in them, some don’t. Hemp is rich for amino’s that help us make globulins, similar to proteins we make for immune function; other peptides in it may have beneficial antioxidant effects. Either way, two heaping tablespoons may only add 5-8 grams of protein, which is less than most other protein supplements. Hemp has more essential fats and more fiber than other protein powders, which is good and bad: Good for the nutrients (hens fed hemp seeds lay eggs with more healthy fats in them), but maybe too much texture for picky eaters who are used to smooth. Hemp protein powder is also dark green, so it won’t hide well in concoctions for kids who are averse to fruits or vegetables in their smoothies. There is a nice profile of minerals like magnesium and zinc in hemp protein powder, and it’s more digestible than soy. If your child is good with the texture of nuts and seeds, but has allergy to these, try whole hemp seeds in snacks instead. They’re tiny like sesame seeds, but soft and chewy, and can work in smoothies, granola, or sprinkled on salads. They can have a strong taste.
Spirulina and Blue Green Algae – Yes, it was used by the Aztecs centuries ago, when they harvested and dried spirulina from lakes in a then-pristine environment. How about now? It is a complete protein, also rich in vitamins and minerals, but falls somewhere between egg and lower value plant proteins for its amino acid profile. Because of this, more if it has to be eaten to get enough for the tissue re-build young kids need when struggling with protein intake and absorption (same problem as hemp protein on that score); this can trigger loose stools. Bonuses: Spirulina has shown some capacity to reduce histamine (less allergy); it has carotenoids in it that can promote eye health; and other phytochemicals in it may have protective effects against certain cancers. Many other health claims are out there for it, but these aren’t well studied in people. It’s decidedly green, and will add that color to anything you stir it into, which can once again really throw kids sensitized to texture or color changes in food. Whether or not blue green algae protein powder can be had today minus the pollutants and toxins everywhere in our environment (heavy metals, pesticides) is up to the manufacturer to monitor and declare (don’t wait for the FDA to do that for you!). Not to be confused with Spirutein, which is a soy protein concentrate mixed with some spirulina from algae; some Spirutein offerings also blend in pea and rice.
Collagen – This is one of my new favorites. Collagen protein from “clean” sources (organic, non-GMO, grass fed) is fine enough to easily dissolve even in water or tea. Brands like BulletProof and Zint Hydrolysate are workable in smoothies, soft foods, or juices without adding grit or any strong flavor.
Free Amino Acids – I’ve said “amino” a lot in this post. Amino acids are the building blocks of protein molecules. Nature created about 22 of these amino building blocks, and we must eat a certain 8-11 of these every day from foods to survive, because we can’t make them ourselves. So, proteins are compared based on their amino acid profiles. Any protein will usually have all of the amino acids present in some amount. The question is, how much of each one? Proteins like egg are high in all of the essential amino’s that we have to eat. No plant proteins are, unless they are augmented or processed to boost their profiles, or unless you eat a lot of that one protein (as would be true for eating hemp or blue green algae proteins). Eating plant proteins with other plant proteins that fill in the missing amino’s for each other is how vegetarians and vegans eat well, and this is also how some of the protein supplement products out there are boosted – they’re paired up.
So what about eating free amino acids, instead of protein that must be broken down? You can do that too, and this can be a very good tool for kids with injured, inflamed, or delicate guts. Multiple food allergy children can benefit here too. I use free amino acid supplements often for these children. The FDA regulates these as “medical foods”, and you can buy them over the counter, as in a product like Thorne Amino Plex, or in specialized formulas, like Neocate, Elecare, or just as pharmaceutical grade amino acid powder. I have used all of the above with impressive results in infants, toddlers, and kids – with a total, integrated nutrition are plan in place. In some cases, free amino acids can be prescribed and covered on insurance.
Take away? Kids who have anything on my bullet list above need nutrition support. Is a protein powder going to help? Maybe. Need to talk? Schedule it now, I look forward to hearing from you!