As your athlete gets older and more competitive in sport, you may be wondering if adding protein powder into their daily routine is a good idea. But before you go out and buy the biggest tub of protein that you can find in the grocery store, there are a few things you should know about supplementing with protein powders, especially for young athletes.
The problem with protein powders
Unfortunately, protein powders, like all supplements, are regulated post-market by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). That means despite the list of ingredients on the back of the tub or bag, you can’t guarantee that you know what’s in them. In fact, over the years, many professional athletes have tested positive for banned substances like anabolic steroids that were eventually traced back to an off-the-shelf supplement that was tainted with the steroids. Even choosing a supplement that has been third-party tested and is certified safe for sport, can’t fully guarantee that it doesn’t contain a substance that might have negative health effects. So first and foremost, understand the risk that comes with taking any supplement.
It creates a supplement-first mentality
The more a young athlete relies on supplements now, the more they think it’s okay to do so later. It might not seem like much, but it’s a slippery slope. It might start with opting for a protein powder over a filet of salmon and some steamed veggies for dinner, but can quickly progress to a point where an athlete is eating bars, gels, and powders for most meals, and adding pills and capsules throughout the day, instead of simply eating a well-balanced, nutrient-dense diet. Supplements generally should only be used on the recommendation of a doctor or registered dietitian in response to a diagnosed deficiency…a coach or friend shouldn’t be the one to recommend any supplementation.
Young athletes need more than protein alone
The other problem with a post-game protein powder mixture is that it often skips other vital nutrients your athlete needs to replenish, including carbohydrates. And even if the powder is more ‘recovery based’ and includes carbs, it misses other important micronutrients and fiber that your athlete should be getting from a meal. A chicken wrap or whole grain peanut butter and jelly sandwich is just as portable and protein-packed as a shake, but with much denser nutritional content. It’s also a lot more satisfying.
Athletes don’t need as much protein as you think
Protein might seem hard to find, but a well-rounded diet with plenty of whole foods, including meat, seafood, beans, dairy, nuts and/or soy products, can easily provide the protein your athlete needs in a day. The National Institute for Health acknowledges that athletes have elevated demands for protein and says that as a general recommendation for maintaining health, athletes should aim for between 0.8 and 1.2 grams of protein per kilogram of body mass daily. It’s important to do the math before leaning into supplements that may pack as much as 40 grams of protein into a serving. For a 100-pound (45.3 kg) 12-year-old athlete, for example, that would mean needing roughly 45.3 grams of protein per day. That could be as simple as eating 2 eggs (14 grams), 1 serving of steak (25 grams), and two tablespoons of peanut butter (8 grams) for plenty of protein over the course of a day.
What do you do for convenient protein instead?
One of the main reasons athletes turn to protein powder is because it’s easy and convenient. If your athlete loves a post-exercise protein shake, you can still whip one up easily without the powder—and it’ll be tastier and more nutrient-dense. Swap the scoop of protein powder for a serving of low fat Greek or Icelandic yogurt, which has between 20 and 30 grams of protein per serving.
Here’s one of our favorites, but feel free to experiment depending on your athlete’s preferences. Simply blend all the ingredients together, adding milk as needed to achieve a texture your athlete will enjoy.
- 1 serving of plain Greek yogurt (2 percent or 0 fat)
- Chopped frozen banana
- Handful of frozen blueberries
- Teaspoon of cocoa powder
- Tablespoon of peanut butter or almond butter
- Handful of spinach
- Splash of milk
- Maple syrup to taste
Don’t have time for that? Check the label on the chocolate milk options at the convenience store: Often, there will be a lower fat, higher protein option that just contains milk, cocoa, and sugar, but packs nearly 20 grams of protein. Find out more about other protein sources here. We also have a few easy post-practice recipes here.
If your athlete is lactose-intolerant or vegan, swap a smoothie for something like lactose-free milk paired with an apple, or use soy yogurt in the smoothie instead.
Still interested in protein powder?
Dr. Amy Eichner, PhD, the Special Advisor on Drug Reference and Supplements at the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency, believes in a food-first mentality, but she does understand that some athletes are still going to turn to protein powders for convenience. She explains:
You can definitely get enough protein from your diet, and that’s always going to be better and have less risk of contamination, but protein powders can have their place in an athlete’s diet. Some athletes, especially older ones with busy schedules, are under a lot of pressure between school, work, training, and extracurriculars. Honestly, it can just be hard to get a square meal. But if you are going to use a protein powder, choose a complete protein that contains all eight essential amino acids that your body can’t make (like a whey protein), one that doesn’t have a lot of added sugar, and one that’s third-party certified.
Protein powders should not replace eating nutrient-dense, protein-rich meals for athletes. Athletes have elevated protein needs, but they can usually be met with whole foods that are rich in protein.