Is Protein Powder Safe for Toddlers?

 As protein powders have become more widely used, people are asking it's OK to give protein powder to small children. Nutrition Diva looks at what we do—and don't—know about high protein diets and kids. 

Monica Reinagel, MS, LD/N, CNS
3-minute read
Episode #425

Once upon a time, the only people who might have had a canister of protein powder in the kitchen were body-builders and dieters on liquid meal replacement programs. Now, it’s become a relatively standard household ingredient.

People are increasingly aware of the advantages of getting more protein in their diet. I’ve also talked about the benefits of spreading your protein intake out more evenly throughout the day.  And protein powder can be an easy way to bump up the protein content of breakfast and lunch, which tend to be much lower in protein than dinner.  This post includes suggestions for incorporating protein powder into a whole lot of things beyond just that morning smoothie.

But as protein powders have become more widely used, I’ve gotten several questions from listeners about whether or not protein powder is safe for small children or pregnant women. I talked about using protein powder during pregnancy. Today, let’s take a closer look at whether it’s OK to give protein powder (or foods made with it) to small children.

For example. Lindsey wrote:

I make a protein shake in the mornings with almond milk, frozen banana, almond butter, spinach, ice, and a scoop of plant-based protein powder. My 2 1/2 year old daughter likes to enjoy a toddler-sized glass with me. Is this safe for her?”

How much protein do toddlers need?

According to the National Institutes of health, the average two-year-old needs about 16 grams of protein per day. This is based on weight. If you want to estimate your own child’s protein requirements, divide his weight in pounds by 2.2 to get his weight in kilograms. Then, multiply that number by 1.2 to get the recommended protein allowance.

Sixteen ounces of protein is about the amount you’d get from ½ cup of cottage cheese or 2 ounces of meat. For more, see my protein cheat sheet.

Dietary surveys show that American toddlers average about 50 grams of protein per day. Even those at the bottom of the curve average 35 grams of protein per day. So it certainly doesn't look like many (first-world) toddlers are at risk of not getting enough protein. And I don’t know of any research showing that a higher protein diet has any benefits for children this age.

One protein researcher I talked to has young children of his own and said he wouldn’t hesitate to let his five-year-old share his protein smoothie or other foods containing with protein powder—especially if these foods end up being lower in sugar and refined carbohydrates. While the additional protein might not provide any direct advantage to the kid, the lower sugar might be an indirect benefit.

Dr. Nancy Rodriguez, Professor of Nutritional Sciences at University of Connecticut, points out that excess calories can lead to overweight kids—regardless of where those calories are coming from. And a recent study suggests that high protein baby formula may contribute to excessive weight gain in babies. 

See also: What to look for in a baby formula

Whether we’re sharing our protein-laced smoothies with our toddlers or not, we need to be sure that their overall calorie intake is appropriate.  Toddlers need about 1,000 calories per day, or about half to a third of what an adult needs.

Whether we’re sharing our protein-laced smoothies with our toddlers or not, we need to be sure that their overall calorie intake is appropriate. 

Dr. Rodriguez also points out that, just like adults, toddlers who are consuming more protein will need more fluids to help their little kidneys process the extra nitrogen.

The bottom line on protein powder for toddlers

Protein powder hardly seems like the biggest threat to our kids' nutrition. And I think it’s fine to share a small serving of your protein smoothie with your toddler, or to let her have a muffin that’s made with added protein powder.

At the same time, I don't think we need to be going out of our way to feed our 2-year-olds protein supplements. They don’t really need the extra protein and we don’t want to run the risk of short-changing them on other nutrients—or loading them up with excess calories. The best thing we can do for our little ones is to make sure that they’re getting a balance of nutrients from a variety of whole and minimally processed foods.

See also: How to Raise Healthy Eaters

Want to know more about protein powder? Send an email or post your question on the Nutrition Diva Facebook page. Then, be sure to subscribe to the Nutrition Diva podcast on iTunesStitcher, or wherever you listen, so don't miss a single episode! 

Images courtesy of Shutterstock 

About the Author

Monica Reinagel, MS, LD/N, CNS

Monica Reinagel is a board-certified licensed nutritionist, author, and the creator of one of iTunes' most highly ranked health and fitness podcasts. Her advice is regularly featured on the TODAY show, Dr. Oz, NPR, and in the nation's leading newspapers, magazines, and websites. Do you have a nutrition question? Call the Nutrition Diva listener line at 443-961-6206. Your question could be featured on the show.