Here’s what you need to know:
- Teenagers have an increased protein need, especially if they take part in physical activity.
- New techniques show that teenagers need more protein than what the is suggested by the World Health Organisation.
- Teenagers can meet their daily protein needs from food alone by selecting complete protein sources.
- Teenagers relying on plant-based protein sources need to educate themselves on protein source combinations.
- Supplements are not meant to replace foods but are convenient ways to assist teenagers in meeting their protein needs.
Protein is essential for good health. In fact, the origin of the word, from the Greek word “Protos”, means “first, which shows the pivotal role of protein for the human body.
The most celebrated role of the protein we eat from food is the growth and maintenance of the body.
Protein also supports a vast number of processes in the body like energy production, the production of hormones, enzymes and nervous system chemicals (neurotransmitters).
Protein is particularly important for dolescents need protein to maintain existing lean body mass and to add additional lean body mass during the adolescent growth spurt.
Protein requirements are highest for females in the 11 to 14 year age range and for males in the 15 to 18 year age range.
Protein needs are even higher for adolescents engaged in sports and physical exercise due to the extra demands imposed by exercise.
Inadequate intake of protein leads to reductions in growth and delays in sexual maturation.
How Much Protein Do Adolescents Need?
The recommended daily allowance (RDA) for protein intake for individuals of all age groups is currently set at a modest 0.8 grams of protein per kilogram of bodyweight per day (0.8g/ kg/ day).
It needs to be emphasised that the RDA is the amount of a nutrient needed to meet basic nutritional requirements. In other words, it is the minimum amount needed daily to prevent you from getting sick from deficiency diseases (to survive) rather than the specific amount you are supposed to eat every day (to thrive).
According to newer methods of determining protein requirements in children and adolescents, it is recommended to obtain 1.2-1.5g protein per day per kilogram of bodyweight, which translates into 72 to 90g of protein for a 60kg teenager.
This range caters for both active and less active teenagers. More active teenagers may need the higher end of the range because physical activity (e.g. exercise and sports) increases protein needs.
Protein Nutrition 101
Protein from food is digested into units called amino acids that the body absorbs and reassembles into various body proteins.
There are 20 amino acids from foods that are needed by the body to make body proteins, 8 of which are termed essential amino acids as they cannot be made by the body and must necessarily be obtained from the diet.
The recommended amount of protein may easily be obtained from the diet but care must be taken to choose foods that contain all the essential amino acids.
Complete and Incomplete Proteins
Protein foods are classified into either complete or incomplete proteins.
Complete protein foods contain all the essential amino acids. Incomplete protein foods, conversely, do not contain the full profile of essential amino acids in sufficient amounts.
A diet based on incomplete proteins can affect body functions and eventually lead to protein malnutrition and therefore it is best to prioritise foods with a complete essential amino acid profile.
Recommended Protein Sources
Generally speaking, animal proteins are considered complete proteins while plant-based proteins typically lack one or more of the essential amino acids to make them complete proteins.
For instance, grains lack the essential amino acid lysine while legumes lack the essential amino acid methionine. Interestingly, each of these protein sources contain the amino acid that the other lacks and therefore care must be taken to make the right combinations by those relying mostly on plant-based proteins.
A word on Supplements
Protein supplements are increasingly common and are pushed by a lot of marketing tactics.
However, protein needs can be met by solid food alone and supplements are not meant as a replacement for solid food nutrition. Neither does supplementation lead to increased performance and health.
Supplements fill the gaps in nutrition and are convenient when a solid meal is not possible or not desired.
A case may be made for supplementation in vegetarians who avoid high protein foods like eggs, meat, fish and chicken. In this case, supplementation may be recommended after a careful evaluation of the diet, using milk-derived proteins.
Protein powders are very versatile and can be included in numerous foods and beverages like pancakes, cereals and smoothies.
When it comes to protein supplements, it is very important to make informed decisions as there are different types of protein and many among them contain unwanted additives, inferior protein grades and potentially harmful ingredients.
Our Protein Powder Selection Guide makes it easy for you to pick the best protein powder for you.
Veeraj Goyaram, MSc (Med) Exer. Sci (UCT) cum laude,
BSc (Hons) Biology with Human Nutrition
Veeraj’s passion revolves around researching and developing nutritional products for optimal health and performance, with a particular interest in sports, child and diabetic nutrition products. Veeraj was previously based as a graduate student at the University of Cape Town, where he examined the effect of exercise and nutrition on the function of genes in muscle. His research was published in renowned scientific journals and medical textbooks on Diabetes and Exercise (PubMed listing). Veeraj keeps healthy by regularly lifting weights and taking daily walks.