Pediatric Associates of the NW Blogs

In Pursuit of Protein

Connie Liakos, MS, RDN, CSSD, LD
November 01, 2017 01:30PM

Parents often wonder if their child is getting enough protein. Read on to find out how much your child needs and why timing is key.

Look in the mirror and you will see… protein! Skin, hair, muscles, fingernails, and the rest of the body contains a variety of proteins. Besides the proteins we can see, there are also a multitude of enzymes, hormones and antibodies involved in reactions throughout the body.

So it’s no surprise that eating protein daily is required to grow, heal that scraped elbow and replace worn-out cells. Some body cells last just three days!

Protein Needs

Growing infants, teens and children require protein for growth, maintenance, development and repair. They may also need a little extra when they are involved in intense physical activity and sports.

Protein is considered a macronutrient, because we need it in larger amounts and it supplies energy in the form of calories to our body. The other two macronutrients are carbohydrate and fat. When extra protein is eaten, the body metabolizes it to energy which can be burned for energy or stored as fat.

Protein needs are sometimes cited as a percentage of calories but this is not the most accurate way to calculate protein needs. Especially in childhood, the most accurate calculation is based on body weight and age.

The chart below summarizes the basic requirement for protein for children of different ages. When working with highly active and athletic children, I often increase the protein requirement to around 1.2 to 1.5 grams per kilogram body weight.

To convert body weight to kilograms, divide pounds by 2.2. For the average 10 year-old girl who weighs 80 lbs. (36.3 kilograms), she needs just 35 grams of protein per day. If she is an active soccer player, she may need as much 54 grams per day.

Dietary Reference Intakes for Protein


Protein (grams/kilogram/day)

0-6 months

1.5 g/kg/d

7-12 months

1.2 g/kg/d

1-3 years

1.1 g/kg/d

4-8 years

0.95 g/kg/d

9-13 years

0.95 g/kg/d

14-18 years

0.85 g/kg/d


0.8 g/kg/d


Protein Sources

In the MyPlate food guide, the protein group encompasses a diverse group of foods that are rich in protein and also provide B vitamins, iron and zinc. Foods included in the protein group comprise both animal and plant sources, including seafood, lean meats, poultry, eggs, beans, soy products, nuts and seeds.

Dairy foods are an important source of high quality protein and also contribute calcium, potassium and other key nutrients. The Dairy group supplies around 18% of the protein in the American diet.

Certain vegetables and grains (especially whole grains) also provide protein.

Below are some common foods with protein content.

3 oz. cooked meat, fish, poultry – 20-23 grams
1 egg – 6 grams
½ cup cottage cheese – 14 grams
1 cup milk – 8 grams
1 cup Greek yogurt – 20-23 grams
1.5 oz. cheese – 9 grams
¼ cup or 1 oz. nuts (average of all types) – 7 grams
½ cup cooked or canned dry beans/lentils – 7-9 grams
3 oz. firm-set tofu – 7 grams
1 cup cooked oatmeal – 5 grams
1 medium potato – 4 grams
½ cup green peas – 4 grams
½ cup cooked quinoa – 4 grams

Protein All Day Long

Most Americans of all ages eat more than enough total protein, but do not always distribute intake throughout the day. Newer research indicates that it may be helpful to include a protein source with most meals and snacks. Eating protein throughout the day helps to regulate appetite and blood sugar and this can help hold junk food cravings at bay.

I often see kids and teens who skimp on protein at breakfast, snacks and even lunch and then load up on protein at the dinner meal. Eating protein with every meal and snack is a smart idea and will help to keep energy levels constant throughout the day.

When participating in physical activity, protein serves an important role in recovery after a big game or workout. When combined with carbohydrate (think whole wheat bread and peanut butter, a corn tortilla and refried beans or tuna salad and whole grain crackers), protein helps muscle cells begin the building and repair process.

Protein seems to be enjoying a popular “moment” these days but it is simply one player on a whole team of nutrients. Carbohydrates, fats, vitamins, minerals and water are also important contributors to a balanced diet that promotes growth, health and performance.