High-protein recovery drinks are marketed as an essential requirement for any athlete who actually wants to make progress. How could you possibly build muscle without loading up on additional protein, right?

Protein-rich recovery shakes have an important place in sports nutrition, but they are also over-used and consumed by people who don’t need them. As a parent of a school-aged athlete, here’s what you need to know before fixing a protein shake for your active child.

Most kids get more than enough protein

Adults need about 0.8-1.0 grams of protein per kilogram of bodyweight per day in order to support an active lifestyle. That requirement increases to 1.2-1.7 g/kg/day for amateur athletes, like adults who run and/or go to the gym 3-5 times per week.

Protein intakes of 1.6-1.8 g/kg/day, combined with heavy weight training, have been shown to help strength athletes build muscle, however, very little research indicates additional benefit – for any athlete – from exceeding 2 g/kg/day. Even though school-age children are actively growing in addition to participating in sports, their protein requirements are within the ranges above, at about 1-1.5g/kg/day.

Estimating protein requirements is easy

A convenient way to estimate your child’s protein requirement is to take their weight in pounds and divide by two. The resulting value is a good starting point for the amount of protein they should consume, in grams.

For example, an 80-pound child should consume 40 grams of protein per day. Even if you wanted to increase protein intake as an ‘insurance policy’ to make sure they’re getting enough, you’d still only be looking at 50 grams.

Even vegetarians and vegans can eat all the protein they need

It is not as difficult as you might think to get more than enough protein: Recent National Health and Nutrition Examination Surveys (NHANES) have consistently shown Americans consume about twice the recommended or necessary amount of protein per day. Dairy products contain about 1g of protein per ounce, and lean meats, fish, and beans contain about 7g of protein per ounce. Nuts and legumes (peanuts) contain 4-7g of protein per ounce.

Considering the protein-rich components of our 80-pound student-athlete’s potential daily diet, here’s how easy it is to exceed the protein requirement:

  • Breakfast: 4 ounces of yogurt (28g of protein)
  • Lunch: 3 ounces of sliced chicken (21g)
  • Snack: 2-ounce bag of almonds (12g)
  • Dinner: 4-ounce hamburger, grilled chicken breast, or salmon filet (28g)

Total: 89 grams of protein

But wait, your teenager is a vegetarian? Their intake could look more like this:

  • Breakfast: 4 ounces of yogurt (28g of protein)
  • Lunch: 2 ounces of peanut butter or almond butter (14g)
  • Snack: 3 ounces hummus (7g)
  • Dinner: 4 ounces of black or pinto beans  (24g)

Total: 73 grams of protein

Or, how about the vegan teenager who consumes no animal products?:

  • Breakfast: 3 ounces of peanut butter (21g of protein)
  • Lunch: 4 ounces of garbanzo beans (chickpeas) (22g)
  • Snack: 3 ounces of almonds (21g)
  • Dinner: 4 ounces of tempeh,  (20g)

Total: 84 grams of protein

All of the scenarios above deliver 70-90 grams of protein, which is within the recommended range for a 170-190 pound adult and more than enough for any school-age athlete.

Real food delivers more than protein

Protein powders and pre-made recovery shakes are convenient, but prioritize protein over comprehensive nutrition. The biggest benefits of consuming real food sources of protein are the other vitamins, minerals, fats and carbohydrates in those foods. All of these nutrients work together to enhance recovery, muscle growth, and immune system function.

Real food reduces added sugar intake

To make protein powders and recovery shakes taste good, manufacturers often add loads of added sugar. The same is true for many protein-rich nutrition bars. The ingredient and nutrient profiles of many of these foods and drinks read more like sweet treats and candy bars than sports nutrition.  

Protein intake should be spread throughout the day

Proponents of protein shakes point to the importance of replenishing protein immediately after hard exercise. While protein is an important component of post-exercise recovery, an athlete’s body benefits most from a steady supply of protein throughout the day. One of the most common ways athletes over-consume protein is by using a protein-rich supplement after exercise and then continuing to prioritize protein in their food choices throughout the rest of the day — due to the amount of protein that is consumed in a protein shake.

Adequate energy intake matters more than protein

No amount of protein will help athletes recover from sports, build muscle, or improve performance if their total energy intake is not adequate to support their activity level.

Only a body getting enough energy for normal everyday functions can direct any of it to building additional muscle or other processes involved in improving performance. Recovery shakes can inadvertently reduce total daily energy and nutrient intake by displacing meals, particularly for athletes who are also looking to lose weight or maintain a low bodyweight.

The Takeaway

Most school-age athletes eating a typical American diet (even one that forgoes animal products) can meet or exceed their protein requirements without consuming recovery shakes or drinks. To best aid your athlete’s development, feed them real food and adequate calories to support their activity level.