Updated 06 June 2016

Do teens really need protein supplements?

Teens engaging in competitive sport want that 'extra edge', but is it safe for them to be taking supplements like protein shakes?


Sport activities form a significant part of the lives of many teenage school children.

Unregulated and chaotic

Obtaining the “extra edge” and the pressure to win may make teenagers vulnerable to the enticing claims of sports nutrition supplements. The use of protein supplements among teenagers is unregulated and often chaotic.

The Athletic Assistance Programme (AAP) condemns the use of supplements by children and adolescents, and the American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM) condemns the use of creatine in particular (a derivative produced by the body from amino acids) by children younger than 18 years.

What about additional protein?

There’s a misconception about protein supplements among many consumers. Ingesting more protein doesn’t contribute to more muscle mass; excess protein is not used in your body to build muscle, but is stored as body fat.

A competitive teenager’s nutritional needs include an adequate intake of energy and high-quality nutrients like protein, and micronutrients like calcium. Staying hydrated is also very important. The intake of sufficient protein together with enough fluid has been identified as ideal for increased muscle mass and muscle recovery after exercise.

Read: Factors that influence water needs

A sufficient energy intake relies on a variety of foods. The macronutrient group consists of carbohydrate, protein and fat. High-quality protein food sources include unprocessed meat, fish, poultry, eggs and dairy. Dairy products like milk and yogurt also contribute to fluid intake.

The recommended dietary allowance (RDA) for protein for non-active adolescents is 0.8–1.0g/kg/day, but active teenagers may need more. Protein needs may vary depending on the teenager’s growth, maturity and level of activity.

According to the Institute of Medicine (IOM) the daily protein requirement for teens is 34g for 13-year-olds, 46g for girls aged 14 to 18 and 52g for boys 14 to 18. An average protein shake provides approximately 21g of protein per standard portion.

It is important to note that although protein shakes can help teens meet their protein requirement, dietary supplements are generally not recommended for children and teenagers – their protein requirements should be covered by their diet. For example, a 100g grilled chicken breast provides the same amount of protein as a standard serving of protein shake. Protein from food sources also provides additional important nutrients.                                                 

Are protein shakes safe to use?

Dietary supplements are not tightly regulated by the American Food and Drug Administration (FDA), and the US Anti-Doping Agency reports that protein supplements may be contaminated with prohibited substances and may contain unlisted and unsafe ingredients. In addition, drinking too many high-protein shakes can lead to protein toxicity, metabolic imbalance, or unwanted weight gain. Other side effects associated with excess protein are calcium loss, dehydration and kidney problems. Consuming a healthy, balanced diet is unlikely to lead to an overconsumption of protein.

Read: Moderate protein diet works best

Benefits of supplementary shakes

Underweight teens who have not managed to gain weight by eating a healthy, balanced diet may benefit from consuming energy- and protein-rich nutrition shakes (not high protein shakes). These shakes are loaded with regulated amounts of essential nutrients, including vitamins and minerals. (We are all individuals with individual needs, and it is therefore recommended that you consult your GP or dietitian before using these products.)

Creating your own shakes and snacks

Teens can rather opt for making protein-rich shakes at home as a way to boost their protein consumption. Blend together milk, yogurt, fruit and nut butters, such as peanut, almond or cashew butter. Use Greek yogurt or add powdered milk for an extra boost of protein. You can also use frozen yogurt instead of regular yogurt.

Read: Are you overdosing on supplements?

Other examples of protein meals and snacks


  • High-fibre toast served with eggs and sardines
  • High-fibre cereal served with plain yogurt, fruit and almond flakes or nuts
  • Smoothie: Blend yogurt or milk, flaked almonds, peanut butter and oatmeal
  • Grilled chicken, and avocado sandwich
  • Tuna and egg, whole-wheat pasta or quinoa salad
  • Grilled steak served with roasted sweet potato and vegetables
  • Grilled hake or salmon served with boiled baby potatoes and salad


  • Milk and fruit
  • Cottage cheese or mozzarella cheese served on crackers, slices of tomato and cucumber
  • Boiled eggs
  • Plain yogurt served with berries and nuts
  • Lean biltong
  • Grilled chicken strips
  • Roasted chickpeas


Teens are easily influenced by their parents, coaches, personal trainers and peers, and it is therefore essential that they be provided with evidence-based information to establish optimal nutritionally balanced dietary patterns.

Read more:

Protein and sports performance

Protein: enough is good but is more better?

Protein harmful for some patients


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