Phil Holmes BA (Hons), PGCE, Adv Dip.Nut MRSPH

It’s a quick fix world. The new kids on the block are accustomed to instant feedback from phones, look at Tik-Tok videos rather than read books and when it comes to building a body, want Love Island physiques inside a week’s worth of weight training.

Protein has become the most discussed feature of many teenage diets. It’s the magic wand, the elixir of life, the cure for all evils; or at least that’s what the young generation are hoping for.

Here’s a little quiz for you (you’ll find the answers further down this page). Which of the following does protein help with:

  1. Hair and nail growth
  2. Transport of oxygen around the body in the blood
  3. Protection against viruses and infection
  4. Blood clotting
  5. Formation of muscle, bone and connective tissue

I have no issue with teens wanting to improve their physique. It doesn’t matter to me whether this is for sporting function (under the supervision of an experienced coach and purposely set up for the sport they are pursuing) or simply to look better (leading to feeling better and any positive mental state it puts a person in has a big thumbs up from me).

But THESE THINGS TAKE TIME. Even now, as a little experiment, I’m 212 words in and I haven’t broken down protein yet. I wonder how many have already left the page…?

So let’s get to the point. Protein is a macronutrient. There are three main groups of food we take energy from; Carbohydrates, Fats and our good friend Protein. I’ll discuss the first two at a later date but briefly both have an essential role to play within our growth and development and functioning – despite what may be portrayed by sensationalist style posts, tweets, programmes. Please don’t omit these from your daily food intake.

The macronutrients can be divided into a percentage contribution to our overall intake for the day. The Eatwell Guide (published by Public Health England) is a good place to start as the advice is presented in order to achieve balance. But it doesn’t necessarily cater for the direct questions from young people / athletes or their parents. Let me answer the most frequently asked ones I’ve faced as a nutrition adviser and PE teacher.

  1. How much protein should my teenage child eat?

Any nutrition stats are based on averages; 2000 calories per day being a great example of a figure based on the average adult female. I don’t know who perfectly fits this description when I look around me (when we aren’t in lockdown). Protein ingestion will follow similar guidelines. Plus I don’t like to have adolescents getting hung up on numbers as there is a psychological aspect to this; food should be enjoyed, not endured.

What I do recommend is they have protein as part of every meal. Breakfast sources for example would be milk, eggs or yoghurt (Greek preferably). Dairy intolerant youngsters will hopefully enjoy goat’s or sheep milk and yoghurt as these present more protein than most plant-based options.

2. Is there an optimum amount of protein per day?

Yes. Well, within parameters. Adults have recommendations between 0.75g of protein for each kg they weigh (if not very active) up to 2g per kg for power athletes (some sources go higher than this in certain sports). As an example we have a 60kg person (gender insignificant).

60 x 0.75 = 45. Therefore a relatively inactive individual should have 45g or protein each day.

60 x 2 = 120. And we see that a power athlete here may require 120g of protein per day. For teenage athletes I refer back to a phrase you will see a lot in this blog: eat protein with every meal.  Regular intake is the key. The numbers at this stage are less important.

3. Why do we need protein?

I’ll now refer back to the quiz at the start of the blog. Most teens will link protein to muscle growth – full stop. The correct answer to the 5 options was – all of them. Proteins are vital for sooooo many functions within our body, going beyond the 5 points above. Yes it helps us to increase muscle mass and strength* but let’s give due respect to a wonderful servant to our phenomenal human machine. (* with a suitable, expertly guided conditioning programme).

4. If protein helps build muscle, why can’t I eat only protein each day? Surely I’ll get bigger quicker?

Okay so let’s explore the ‘building muscle’ perception. Protein helps to repair the muscle tissues we breakdown when we place them under stress – lift weight, run or cycle at intensity as just some examples. EATING PROTEIN WITHOUT EXERCISING WILL NOT INCREASE MUSCLE MASS.  And our bodies can only process a certain amount in one meal. Including a tin of tuna in a sandwich for a school packed lunch will give around 20-25g of protein. The body will be able to absorb and process this. It’s a great choice. Eating two tins and getting toward 50g of protein is not a smart choice. The body will not cope with all this and will pee most of the excess protein out. And just protein choices mean we won’t function due to the way our body selects energy from carbs and fats, not to mention vitamins and minerals from fruit and veg – another story for another time. The bottom line is a balanced diet and some protein at every meal!

5. If I drink protein shakes, I’ll get much bigger, much faster won’t I?

The body can only process a certain amount of protein at any one meal. So we train and then have a tuna sandwich and a protein shake – it’s a waste of time and money. Plus we need to look at how intense / regularly / smart an individual trains.

6. Okay. But protein shakes are the best choice aren’t they? So I’ll omit the tuna sandwich….

AAarrrgggghhhh – no, no, no – please no! The tuna sandwich gives carbs from the (wholemeal) bread, hopefully includes some salad for extra vits and mins and has a higher calorie intake which is vital for growing athletes.  Shakes act as a supplement. That means they add support to a daily nutrition programme and not act as the main source. Shakes are good for a company executive who trains at 6am or lunchtime and can’t get to a kitchen or café within an hour or so after exercising. I always advocate a balanced diet and protein with every meal.

7. But all my mates are using shakes. I’m scared they’ll get bigger than me…

Here’s the ‘shake psychology’. Schools can be a minefield for young athletes as the majority will want to fit in and won’t have the self-assurance to follow their own path – this isn’t a criticism, it’s an observation based on over 20 years of working with teenagers in schools!

If it helps the acceptance / psychology within a group then allow your child to use a shake. Life is tough and we can make the path smoother for young ones with choosing our battles wisely. But please go to this rule first: eat protein as part of every meal.  Plus ‘gaining size’ is related to multiple factors – genetics, body composition, nutrition, exercise programme, exercise frequency, sleep…I could go on. I’ll cover this in other blogs.

For now I hope this has been a good read for you all. Hopefully you’ve learnt something and, even better, you now have even more questions to fire my way. If so, please email   Stay healthy and stay safe.