A Guide To Protein & Young Athletes

Chances are, you know about protein. It’s everywhere in the media today, and it’s being promoted as the KING of everything. You’re probably being told to eat more of it, especially as a teenager and young athlete due to its role in growth and recovery - but is this the smartest option…

Protein, everyone needs it. And when you look at athletes and the health & fitness industry it’s everywhere,  and often in different forms. Our intake of this macronutrient are increasing, but is it beneficial… Or is it more of a case of diminishing returns in regards to adolescents and young athletes…

Sure, protein is essential for growth, repair, and recovery, but is it the king? And do you need it in such high amounts as people are now beginning to suggest? Let me tell you this bluntly, no. Why? Because the body will only absorb so much, depending on growth and repair rate, so the excess is excreted in the urine. Yep, you piss it out (if you’ve got “foamy” urine, chances are this is you)

What Is Protein, and Why Do You Need It?

Proteins are made up of molecules called amino acids, of which there are twenty in total. And these can be combined in many different combinations to form hundreds of different proteins in the body. Twelve of these can be made by the body (known as non-essential amino acids), and eight must be supplied by the diet (known as essential amino acids)

If we view a growing and repairing body as a house being built, proteins are our bricks. They’re essential, but if we consume them (i.e. get bricks), the house isn’t built - we simply begin collecting a nice pile of bricks. We need workers to come along and place the bricks where they need to be, stacked upon one another, until the house is built. And these workers are carbohydrates, as they elicit insulin, which shuttle proteins (and other molecules) from the bloodstream into the muscles. So essentially, carbohydrates and insulin are king, not proteins

How Much Do Young Athlete's Need?

And when we begin to look at how much is truly required in the younger demographic, it’s truly not all that much. Boys aged 9-18yrs are recommended to consume between 40-65g per day (or ~1g/kg of BW), and girls aged 9-18yrs are recommended to consume between 35-45g per day (or ~.87g/kg of BW). And please note, these values do not take into account physical activity levels. 

So how much is this in regards to the amount of food?

Note:   all of the above (except for nuts and beans/legumes) contain ~15g     protein

Note: all of the above (except for nuts and beans/legumes) contain ~15g protein

As you can see, a serve of protein at each main meal and each snack will get us to our recommended level of protein for the day (15 x 6 = 90g). It is recommended we get out protein from animal sources as we call these “complete sources of protein”, meaning we get all 22 proteins from the one food, however you can get all 22 from mixing and matching plant foods - these are called “complimentary sources of protein” of which we will be discussing in depth next week

What About When Sport & Training Is Involved?

Yet when factoring in sport and activity levels, the following table helps find out how much protein is required

Note:  Female Athletes = 10-20% lower than male values given above

Note: Female Athletes = 10-20% lower than male values given above

Amounts will, therefore, increase slightly with sports, depending on the type of the sport. In this example, we’re going to use  Resistance Training (early training age) as an example, as this takes into account adolescents and young athletes who are just beginning resistance training

If we have a 15yr old boy who weights 60kg, he will need between 90-102g of protein a day (60kg x 1.5 and 1.7), whilst a girl weighing the same would require between 77-87g of protein per day (15% less than the boy)

What Are Some Great Sources?

Earlier on, you may recall me saying that there are 20 amino acids, 12 of which are non-essential (i.e. produced in the body) and 8 of which are essential (i.e. must be obtained via the diet). When we look at foods, animal products such as meats and dairy, provide us with all 20 amino acids, and we call these ‘complete sources’, whereas plant-based foods and grains (think rice, beans, bread) do not contain all 20, and are known as “incomplete sources”. So when you look at a vegetarian diet, sometimes they can be lacking in different amino acids

This is easy to rectify, however, as we can use complimentary sources of foods to ensure we get all 20 amino acids. For instance, we can mix beans with rice or beans with bread - and the image to the right depicts all the other sorts of combinations to ensure vegetarians get complete sources of proteins

Hopefully, this is beginning to show you that are increased requirements for young athletes and active adolescents, but you can simply increase our serving sizes at each meal to accommodate for this rise in protein requirements. And just know that when it comes to protein, you don’t need supplements, as you can get all you require from real food

Next week, we will take a more in-depth look at proteins, in specific regards to vegetarians and how they can meet their needs

NutritionNick Maier