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Why Teens Need Animal Protein and How to Get It

We hear a lot about the importance of protein, but how much protein do teens really need? Let’s find out!

If you’ve been around the health and wellness space for any length of time, you’ll know that dietary recommendations are constantly changing. The next “healing” diet is typically based on one food “villain” that is supposedly causing all of your problems. It could be carbs, fat, meat, plants,…you get the idea.

As a Nutritional Therapist that specializes in kid’s health, I see a lot of different diets. Everything from the Standard American Diet to extreme restrictive diets. Here’s the thing – we are each unique with bio-individual needs. So there is no one-size-fits-all diet. Any “expert” online that tells you there is should be ignored.

This is especially true for kids and teens who are growing and developing. The goal is always a balance that meets your child’s needs. No extremes. And the focus is always on dietary expansion, not restriction. The more expanded the diet (within the context of whole foods), the more diverse the nutrient content.

variety of plant based protein

Is a Vegan Diet Safe for Teens?

A balanced diet that contains both plants and animals and all three macronutrients is best for most people, especially kids. I look at health from a nutrient perspective, specifically vitamins and minerals. I can tell almost instantly if a child is eating a restricted diet (no matter the reason) by looking at his or her mineral status.

Without fail, if a child is either struggling to eat animal protein (due to picky eating, oral SPD, or any other cause) or is raised on a vegan or vegetarian diet, it shows.

Vegan and vegetarian diets (whether by choice or due to other factors) can be the cause for:

  • Low zinc
  • Low phosphorus
  • Weak digestion
  • Weak bones
  • Poor growth and development
  • Mental health struggles
  • Imbalanced or inadequate hormone production
  • Frequent illness
  • Tendency towards isolation

These are just a few of the consequences of excluding or severely limiting animal protein in a teen’s diet.

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Can Teens Get Enough Protein Without Eating Meat?

I’m sure not everyone will agree with me, but based on my work with teens, it is next to impossible to get adequate complete protein without eating meat.

Let’s start by defining protein. It is simply a chain of amino acids. There are 20 amino acids that our bodies need to function optimally. Eleven of these amino acids are made by the body (called non-essential because we don’t have to consume them).

The other nine amino acids are considered essential because we must get them from food. We can’t make them.

So, a complete protein is any protein source that contains all nine essential amino acids.

Sources of complete proteins include:

  • Beef
  • Chicken
  • Turkey
  • Lamb
  • Venison
  • Pork
  • Eggs
  • Dairy
  • Seafood

Notice that nuts, seeds, beans, and lentils are not on the list. Do they contain some protein and amino acids? Yes. Are they adequate sources of protein individually? No.

man eating a burger

What Is the Role of Protein in a Teen’s Body?

Protein, specifically amino acids, has many important roles in a teen’s body. Some of these roles include:

  • Muscle formation
  • Transporting nutrients
  • Helping keep blood sugar stable
  • Repairing tissue
  • Producing cellular energy
  • Making hormones (especially important during puberty and the teenage years)
  • Making neurotransmitters (essential for mental health)
  • Producing healthy skin, hair, and nails
  • Supporting the immune system

Amino acids (proteins) are the building blocks of life. A diet without adequate complete protein will hinder a teenager’s growth, development, and overall health and well-being.

a variety of animal proteins

How Many Grams of Protein Do Teens Need Each Day?

Hopefully, you are starting to see just how important protein, especially animal protein, is for teens. Now it’s time to get practical and look at how to incorporate enough protein into your child’s diet.

There are multiple ways to calculate ideal protein intake. Some base it on body weight. Some focus on age. Some look at activity level. These are all important factors.

I find the easiest way to calculate protein intake is by using either lean body mass or ideal body weight.

The goal is roughly one gram of protein for each pound of lean body mass or ideal body weight (not actual body weight – this factors in being underweight or overweight). This should give you a good range to aim for.

Lean body mass can be found using online calculators. There are different methods for calculation, so you will get a range.

Again, there is no one-size-fits-all recommendation for protein intake. It is different for each teen.

How Much Protein Do Nuts Contain?

Some of the easiest protein sources are unfortunately not the best. We often reach for nuts, seeds, or cheese as a quick snack. Let’s look at the actual protein content in these foods.

We’ll start with nuts. Contrary to popular belief, nuts are a much better source of fat than protein. Using peanuts as an example, let’s look at the nutrients in 1 oz.

  • 14g fat
  • 4.6g carbohydrates
  • 7.3g protein

You’ll notice that by proportion peanuts are mostly fat. Also, 7.3 grams of protein is not much when you are aiming for 70 plus grams per day. Not to mention peanuts are not a complete protein. So you’d have to combine them with another source.

variety of dairy

How Much Protein Do Dairy Products Contain?

Dairy is another common option for an easy protein source. When it comes to dairy it really depends on the form. Let’s look at 1 oz. of cheddar cheese.

  • 10g fat
  • 0g carbohydrates
  • 7g protein

Again, there is a higher portion of fat than protein. But if we look at Greek yogurt (5.3 oz. full fat) we get different results.

  • 7.5g fat
  • 6g carbohydrates
  • 14g protein

Here the protein is the star of the show.

It all comes down to reading labels and being aware of what your teens are eating.

Is Animal Protein Really Superior?

Is it actually possible to get all of your protein from plant sources? It is. But it requires a lot of food combining (this would be essential to ensure adequate nutrition)…and a lot of food in general! This is why animal protein is a much better solution for teens.

As an example, 3 oz. of beef tenderloin contains 26g of protein. That’s a lot of protein in a small package. On the other hand, you’d need to eat almost two cups of lentils to get that same amount of protein (that’s a lot of lentils!). And it wouldn’t even be a complete protein.

Would your teen prefer one Paleovalley beef stick (1 oz.) or 24 almonds (use the code STEWARDSHIP for 10% off at that site!)? They contain equal amounts of protein, but one is not complete.

By incorporating animal protein into your teen’s diet you will hit the complete protein mark much more easily. Plus animal protein contains other essential nutrients not found in plant sources, such as retinol.

protein powder

Are Protein Powders Safe for Teens?

Sometimes it feels daunting to monitor your child’s nutrition down to macronutrients. Many want to jump to protein powders and supplements as a reassurance (I’m not a fan of supplementing as a means to give you peace of mind). While protein powders have their place, real, whole food sources of protein come first. They are the foundation.

If you have the food foundation, but you find your teen is struggling to meet his or her daily protein requirements, it’s OK to use simple protein powders such as collagen (use the coupon KS10 for 10% off!) (use the coupon KS10 for 10% off!). Fun treats like breakfast cupcakes or a butterscotch milkshake are great ways to add collagen alongside other sources of quality protein.

You can even add some simple amino acid support. For example, if your son is consistently consuming 10-20 grams of protein less than his ideal, it’s OK to add a food-based supplement.

Make sure you trust your source and avoid added fillers and sweeteners.

RELATED: We searched for the best protein powder and you can see our results here!

Keep protein powders as a little extra rather than a focus. Nobody has a protein powder deficiency. And the body will utilize actual food sources of protein better than isolated supplements. Food first is always the way to go.

teens eating burgers

Protein Intake for Teens

At the end of the day, kids of all ages, including and especially teens, need animal protein for optimal health. And as with any nutrient, you can get both too little and too much. So it’s important to figure out a good range for your teen.

One of the easiest ways to figure out your child’s needs is to use an online food journal, such as Cronomter, and log his or her food for a few days. This gives you a baseline of protein intake so you can see your starting point and make adjustments as needed.

If you want your teens to have good energy, balanced hormones, and a stronger immune system, make sure they have plenty of complete, animal protein in their diets.

What is your biggest struggle when it comes to protein intake for your teen?

Why teens need animal protein
Unless otherwise credited, photos are owned by the author or used with a license from Canva or Deposit Photos.

6 thoughts on “Why Teens Need Animal Protein and How to Get It”

  1. I chose to be a vegetarian back in the 80s, and food combining was the prevalent thought to “get” all essential nutrients. I thought that way of thinking was no longer considered correct. The World Health Organization recommends all people, including teens, get 5 percent of their calories from protein. Here is an easy to understand article about protein (Americans are eating, on average, 6 to 10 times the necessary protein that they need which causes health problems):

    1. I recommend everyone logs their food for a few days to really assess their macronutrient intake. It’s quite eye-opening!

  2. We were raw vegan for a long time when the kids were little. And now that we do eat meat, my biggest struggles with asking it to it meals more often are: cost, hands on time it takes to prepare, getting back into the swing of including it in meal planning. Knowing what this article says weighs heavily on me! I guess I just have to make the decision, stick to it and follow through. Without a plan, I can plan to fail! This was good motivation for me! Thank you!

    1. Susan from Kitchen Stewardship

      Definitely make a plan, and if you can get the whole family on board, it will definitely help you follow through.

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