Why is Protein Important for Kids' Growth?

How Protein Benefits Growth and Development in Kids

child eating in kitchen

Protein is a macronutrient that is vital for child growth and development, yet research shows that one in seven school-aged children do not meet their daily protein intake goals.1

If a child is growing slowly or is small for their age they may not be getting all the protein and nutrients needed for healthy growth. The good news is that with a few changes you can help your child get on track.

Learn how protein supports healthy growth, plus simple tips for packing more protein onto every plate.

Protein for Kids' Growth

Protein plays an essential role in many bodily functions, including recovery and repair of tissues in the muscles, skin, organs, blood, hair and nails. Of the 20 amino acids that make up protein, the body can produce 11 — the other nine must come from food.

"Many sources of protein provide important nutrients like vitamin E, B vitamins, zinc, iron and magnesium and its part of nearly every cell in your body," says Jennifer Williams, MPH, nutrition research scientist with Abbott.

Williams added that children who don't get enough protein may experience health issues, including fatigue, poor concentration, slowed growth, bone and joint pain, delayed wound healing and decreased immune response. But with small changes you can protect against protein deficiency.

Protein Recommendations

Below, by age group, are the National Academies of Science dietary protein recommendations for children, but Williams notes that these represent the minimum amounts needed to prevent deficiency. Talk to your pediatrician about individual protein needs based on age, activity level and any other considerations to determine what's best for your child.

Sources for Kids

According to recent National Health And Nutrition Examination survey data, snacks can make up about 30 percent of U.S. children's daily calories, and many of those snacks are often from low-nutrient snacks, desserts and candy.2

Kids can be picky eaters, but luckily there are plenty of great options for adding protein to their diets outside of meals. "Milk is a really easy source of protein to give to kids, and it provides calcium and vitamin D, which are important nutrients for bone growth," says Williams. She also recommends other dairy products, like Greek yogurt, drinkable yogurts and cottage cheese.

Nutrition questions? For general nutrition guidance check out the Feeding Expert line.

For kids without food allergies, Williams also recommends adding nut butters to smoothies, toast and snacks. If your child is a more adventurous eater, they may be open to hard-boiled eggs, trail mix, deli meat, or edamame.

If you are still having trouble getting enough protein on the plate, protein-rich drinks can be one solution. "PediaSure®SideKicks  is like an insurance plan for protein," says Williams. With 10 grams of protein per serving and added nutrients like vitamin D, calcium, fiber and potassium, it's an easy way to help fill gaps in your child's diet.

Kids can learn to balance nutrients at meals with the USDA's MyPlate, but parents can also teach them to follow these same principles at snack time.

Meeting daily protein intake goals is an essential part of child growth and development. When kids get the nutrition they need, they're in the best position to begin long, healthy lives.

1 Data on File, April 2018. Abbott Nutrition. NHANES data analysis. 1 in 7 school-aged kids defined as 6-13 years. National Academies of Science's RDA for protein ranges from 13-34g daily in children.

2 Generating Targetable Strategies for Improving Malnutrition Status among 2-5 Year Olds. Archdeacon AL, et al. Presented at 2018 Pediatric Academic Societies Meeting, Toronto, Canada.

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Decoding Your Child's Growth Chart

Decoding Your Child's Growth Chart

Pediatricians have several different tools they can use to measure your child's health. One of the most powerful among them is the growth chart. Sometimes, it can be difficult to make sense of all those lines and numbers — if you've felt this before, you're not alone. Here's some valuable insight into how to decode and better understand your child's chart. A Window Into Your Child's Health The growth chart might seem like just another piece of paper, but it's packed with several important insights. On the surface, it can look like these charts are simply about height and weight; however, growth is an indicator of many aspects of your child's health and well-being, such as cognitive development, immunity and nutrition status. One Size Doesn't Fit All The growth chart uses a set of measurements, called percentiles, to compare your child's weight, height and head size (in the case of infants) to those of other children of the same age and sex. The higher the percentile, the larger a child is compared to their peers. Conversely, the lower the percentile, the smaller the child. For example, if your child is in the 75th percentile for height, that means they are taller than 75% of kids their age. Kids of  average height for their age based on WHO Child growth standards would measure in the 50th percentile. It's natural to assume bigger is better, but that's not necessarily the case. Many factors influence a child's size, including genetics, diet, and even their environment. Instead of focusing on a specific goal, pediatricians are far more interested in each child's individual growth trend. For instance, a child who has consistently been in the 30th percentile for height or weight might be experiencing perfectly healthy growth; however, if that number were to suddenly drop to the 15th percentile or below, further investigation might make sense. Adding Up the Numbers Because children experience different rates of growth according to their age, there are two basic types of growth charts. The first is designed for newborns and babies up to age 2, while the other is for kids and young adults between the ages of 2 and 20. At every wellness visit, your pediatrician will measure your child's height and weight to keep close tabs on their growth trend. Then, they'll plot these figures on the chart. You don't have to wait until your child's next appointment to learn the results. You can download the same charts they use and plot the results yourself. 

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