What is your understanding of protein as a parent of a youth athlete? Do you know whether protein powder is safe or not? Are you aware of the different plant or animal-based dietary sources of protein? If you are unsure about any of these, then this article is perfect for you.
Once sports become an important part of your children’s life, queries may arise regarding sports supplements. One of the most common concerns is about protein powders. Protein powders are commonly used by active individuals, including youth athletes, for recovery, and performance. Some of the most frequently asked questions regarding protein powder are:
1. Is protein powder drug free?
2. Is protein powder safe?
3. Does protein powder contain steroids?
Let’s explore the truth behind protein and protein powder, and answer these questions for you.
What is Protein?
Protein is one of the three macronutrients that are essential for the human body . You may be wondering what “macronutrients” are. Macronutrients are the main nutrients required by your body in larger amounts to provide energy, which include carbohydrates, fat and protein. Protein provides energy (but is not the main energy source), and is essential for building and repairing muscles, skin, hair and other tissues in our bodies [1, 2].
Protein is formed by smaller molecules called amino acids. There are 20 standard amino acids required to form a protein. Nine of these amino acids, also known as essential amino acids, cannot be produced by the human body and must come from food . Essential amino acids are shown to be crucial for maintaining and increasing muscle mass . Leucine is one of the three essential amino acids known as Branched Chain Amino Acids (BCAAs), that enhances protein synthesis, muscle absorption and, thus can help with increasing muscle mass .
Why are essential amino acids so important? Because if you lack any of these amino acids it can negatively affect the bodies ability to grow, repair or maintain tissues .
Why is Protein important?
Proper nutrition, including adequate protein intake, is crucial for youth athletes to:
- Support normal growth and development .
- Achieve optimal performance in sports .
- Repair, maintain or increase muscle mass [2, 5].
Adequate daily protein intake can be achieved through a variety of animal-based or plant-based (vegan) dietary sources.
How do I get enough protein in my diet?
Protein can be found in:
- Animal-based protein: meat (red meat, poultry including chicken or turkey), fish, eggs, dairy products (cheese, milk, yogurt)
- Plant-based protein: tofu, beans, legumes, lentils, beans, nuts, soy, peas
Which protein source is better for athletes, when it comes to muscle repair and growth?
The evidence shows that protein from animal sources include more essential amino acids (especially leucine), compared to plant-based protein sources, meaning that animal-based proteins could enable muscle recovery further due to more potent absorption . However, there is also a wealth of evidence suggesting that adequate protein intake of any diet, either from animal or plant based protein sources, may have similar effects on muscle mass and growth . Therefore, there should be no concerns if your child follows a vegetarian or vegan diet, as they can still meet their requirements with a combination of several plant-based sources.
What are the Protein requirements for youth athletes?
It is hard to know the exact protein requirements for each youth athlete as it depends on various factors such as age, weight, sport, and training demands.
The daily protein requirements for non-athletic youth individuals aged between 13 and 18 years old range from 0.85-1g/kg . For example, if a non-athletic children weights 60kg, protein requirements will range from 51 – 60g of protein daily.
The daily protein requirements for youth athletes aged between 13 and 18 years old are higher to 1.2 – 1.8g/kg daily, as active children require more protein [1, 9]. For example, if a youth athlete weights 60kg, protein requirements will range from 72 – 108g of protein daily.
But don’t forget! Protein requirements widely vary between different sports and training demands. If you find it difficult to work out your children’s protein requirements, then the protein intake calculator is for you!
Do protein powders contain steroids?
You may find it difficult to distinguish the difference between sport supplements and performance enhancing drugs (PEDs).
Protein powder, is one of the most popular sport supplements, and is classified in one of the categories of “Appearance and Performance Enhancing Drugs and Substances” (APEDS) . APEDS involve both legal and illegal substances. PEDs are illegal substances that involve anabolic-androgenic steroids and other substances such as human growth hormone and stimulants, and are banned for competitions .
Protein powder is considered as a performance enhancing substance (PES), but NOT a PED, as it does not contain any illegal substances such as anabolic steroids, thus is not considered as a drug [10, 11].
Is protein powder safe for teenage athletes?
Protein powder might have a positive effect on athletic performance and is a legal substance, not banned for competitions and is relatively safe [10, 11, 5]. Now, your questions can clearly be answered.
- No! Protein powder is not a drug.
- No! Protein powder does not contain anabolic steroids.
- Yes! Protein powder is safe.
Overall, there is no evidence suggesting that protein powder is not a safe supplement for individuals, including teenagers. However, sport supplements have been contaminated with illegal substances in the past. To ensure safety, when considering to purchase a sport supplement look for the Informed-Sport logo on it.
Informed-Sport logo will guarantee that the supplement contains everything that is written on it, is not contaminated with any other substances and meets a high standards.
Be careful with your protein powder choice. If your child has a milk allergy or lactose intolerance, some protein powders may not be suitable for them.
Protein powders that are made from whey or casein are vegetarian, but not vegan, as they are made from milk. Milk-based protein powders should be avoided by vegans or individuals with allergies or lactose intolerance to prevent possible side effects. Vegan protein powders can be made from soy and other plant-based sources and provide similar amount of protein and essential amino acids with animal-based protein powders.
Youth Sport Nutrition recommend a food-first approach for youth athletes, meaning receiving most of their protein from food sources. Yet, protein powders can be used as a quick and easy solution for protein intake when time is limited and protein is required. You can find out more about the most suitable times of protein consumption from young athletes here!
Christina Strouthou Dietetics and Nutrition (BSc Hons)
 Firmansyah, A., & Prasetya, M. R. A. (2021). The nutrition needs of adolescent athletes: A systematic review. Jurnal SPORTIF: Jurnal Penelitian Pembelajaran, 7(3), 400-418.
 Hoffman, J. R., & Falvo, M. J. (2004). Protein–which is best?. Journal of sports science & medicine, 3(3), 118.
 Watford, M., & Wu, G. (2018). Protein. Advances in Nutrition, 9(5), 651-653.
 van Vliet, S., Burd, N. A., & van Loon, L. J. (2015). The skeletal muscle anabolic response to plant-versus animal-based protein consumption. The Journal of nutrition, 145(9), 1981-1991. https://doi.org/10.3945/jn.114.204305
 Pasiakos, S. M., Lieberman, H. R., & McLellan, T. M. (2014). Effects of protein supplements on muscle damage, soreness and recovery of muscle function and physical performance: a systematic review. Sports Medicine, 44(5), 655-670.
 Mangine, G. T., & Stratton, M. T. (2019). Incorporating dietary supplements with sports-specific training and competition. In Dietary Supplementation in Sport and Exercise (pp. 291-315).
 Hevia-Larraín, V., Gualano, B., Longobardi, I., Gil, S., Fernandes, A. L., Costa, L. A., ... & Roschel, H. (2021). High-protein plant-based diet versus a protein-matched omnivorous diet to support resistance training adaptations: a comparison between habitual vegans and omnivores. Sports Medicine, 51(6), 1317-1330.
 Hudson, J. L., Baum, J. I., Diaz, E. C., & Børsheim, E. (2021). Dietary Protein Requirements in Children: Methods for Consideration. Nutrients, 13(5), 1554.
 Smith, J. W., Holmes, M. E., & McAllister, M. J. (2015). Nutritional considerations for performance in young athletes. Journal of sports medicine, 2015.
 National Federation of State High School Associations (NFHS). (2017). Understanding Two Categories of Appearance and Performance Enhancing Drugs, Substances. https://www.nfhs.org/articles/understanding-two-categories-of-appearance-and-performance-enhancing-drugs-substances/#:~:text=Legal%2C%20not%20banned%20for%20competition,positive%20effects%20upon%20athletic%20performance.&text=the%20World%20Anti%2DDoping%20Agency,amino%20acids%2C%20caffeine%20and%20creatine
 Darkes, J., Collins, R., Cohen, J., & Gwartney, D. (2013). Performance-Enhancing Drug Use (Including Anabolic Steroids) by Adolescents and College Students: Etiology and Prevention.