I would say one of the most frequent conversations that I get is about protein, especially when talking to young male athletes. Everyone wants to be bigger, stronger, or leaner. Of course protein has its place in the young athlete’s diet but, just like all other components, protein has a time, a place and an appropriate amount. So often we have this “bigger is always better” or “more is always better” mentality. Well, this actually is not the case with protein. Our bodies can only utilize up to a certain amount of protein at once to help build or maintain lean muscle. After that threshold, studies continue to find that any gains in lean mass simply plateau and excess protein is excreted from the body seen with increased urea levels. Not only is there a threshold, but athletes must remember that the increased protein intake will not yield the best results if a resistance training program is not accompanied with the protein intake. There must be an actual stimulus on the muscle. Finally and, actually, most importantly we need to remember that guys cannot gain large amounts of lean muscle until they get through puberty. They simply don’t have the hormones needed to achieve the high increases in muscle mass.
When I walk into a school, classroom, or onto a field I usually get a LOT of questions about supplements and shakes and protein powders from the guys. I like to remind athletes that you can get just as much protein from real food plus so many additional benefits (like calcium and vitamin D for bone health, potassium, iron, zinc, magnesium, fiber, etc.). I also make sure the student athletes are aware that supplements are not regulated by the FDA and so there could be ingredients in the product that are not listed on the label or there could be too much of an ingredient in the product or not enough to have any effect at all. It’s important to pick a 3rd party tested supplement if you will be using one! I have a whole post on supplements here. Lastly, it’s also important to realize that supplements that are approved are typically approved for use in adults. The effects on a growing and developing child or teen are not completely known. If you feel that your young athlete must supplement get with a registered sports dietitian and / or a sports medicine physician to make sure it is appropriate.
So, with all of that said, what are my takeaways when talking with young athletes and their parents, coaches, athletic trainers and others who guide young athletes? Here are my top 3 nuggets to take with you….
Top 3 Things To Remember About Protein & Your Young Athlete
Remember that young male athletes cannot build the amount of muscle that adult men can until they go through puberty. Tons of protein and resistance training are not going to be beneficial until they have the hormones to support that muscle development.
While protein needs really depend on your athlete’s individual weight, a good general estimate is that our bodies can only utilize roughly 20 to 30 grams of protein at one time for muscle building. Therefore, it’s better to have 20-ish grams a few times a day vs. 40, 50 or 60+ at one sitting (another reason young athletes should get breakfast and not skip meals!).
Be careful with protein supplements. Supplements (a) are not regulated by the FDA and (b) are not tested on children. So, even if it is proven safe in adults, that doesn’t mean it will have the same effect or results on children. Check out my previous post linked above to learn about 3rd party testing agencies for safe supplements.
If you have questions about the specific protein needs for your young athlete, meet with a sports dietitian, specifically one specializing in pediatrics, to come up with an appropriate goal and plan.
If you have any questions about this post, please comment below and I’ll get back with you!
Oh, and stay tuned for more posts this month where I’ll be sharing sample meals that are packed with protein to help you plan for the weeks!