Proteins in Children's Diets
With the recent focus on high-protein diets, have you ever wondered how much protein a young child needs or how to add protein to the diet of a child who does not eat meat? Proteins are needed for the body to perform basic functions and knowing how to provide adequate levels to a growing child can be helpful in meal and snack planning.
Proteins are needed for growth, regulation of hormones, control of metabolism, and repair of all body cells. Body cells contain proteins. The skin, muscles, organs and glands are mainly protein.
The body’s need for proteins is higher for infants, young children, adolescents, and pregnant and nursing women. Illness also can increase the need for protein.
Proteins are made from amino acids. Of the 20 different amino acids that make up all types of protein, there are eight essential amino acids that bodies cannot make and are needed in the diet. The body breaks down the protein from foods into amino acids. These amino acids appear in the blood and circulate to the parts of the body that needs them to rebuild cells and maintain health.
Cells select which amino acids are needed. Some amino acids are used for energy and if there is enough in the body for daily health, the excess is excreted in urine. Individuals who eat high amounts of protein tend to excrete large amounts of urea.
Sources of Protein
Since the body cannot adequately store amino acids, foods containing protein should be eaten daily. The major dietary sources of protein are animal products. Meats (beef, lamb, etc.), poultry, fish, eggs, and milk products (any kind of milk, cheese, yogurt, etc.) provide the eight essential amino acids. These are known as complete protein foods.
Vegetables, nuts, seeds, and grains also contain protein, but each of these foods is missing one or more of the essential amino acids. However, vegetable proteins can be combined to form a meal containing all eight of the essential amino acids.
In places where animal products (especially meats) are very expensive or not available, protein needs can be met by eating certain types of foods together. Vegetarians must combine foods to meet their protein needs. Familiar examples are rice and beans, lentil or pea soup and crackers, peanut butter on whole wheat bread, cheese quesadillas, rice pudding, and hummus and pita bread.
Daily Protein Needs
Protein needs are based upon energy needs and growth rates. Young children, ages one-five, need to eat 42-54 grams of protein daily. It is extremely rare to find a protein-deficient child in the U.S. as most American children eat more than enough protein foods.
Protein sources quickly add up during the day. For example, an ounce of meat has five-seven grams of complete protein. Two tablespoons of peanut butter provide eight grams of incomplete protein. A cup of milk has eight grams of complete protein. A slice of whole wheat bread provides four grams of incomplete protein.
By choosing foods wisely, you can make sure the children in your care get enough protein for growth and health.
When planning meals, it is important to include a protein food in the entree. Each of the foods listed in the meat/meat alternate category of the Child and Adult Care Food Program (CACFP) Guide to Meal Planning contains protein.
Remember, you do not have to serve meat, fish, or poultry to meet children’s protein needs. A grilled cheese sandwich, peanut butter and crackers, bean soup, macaroni and cheese, or other non-meat food can count as the protein in meal planning. Yogurt also counts as a meat alternative.
It is important to provide alternative protein choices for young children since some children find chewing meats to be difficult or they simply do not like the taste or texture of meat. Also, some families do not serve meat due to the cost or for personal or cultural reasons. If children eat eggs and milk/milk products and no meat, they can grow and develop normally.
Some children are at risk for low-protein intakes. Children with multiple food allergies often have so many restrictions that parents may find it difficult to get sufficient protein from familiar sources. These families should work with a health care provider and a dietitian to ensure that children get the necessary amino acids and protein.
The children most at risk are those whose parents totally restrict all animal sources of protein--including eggs and milk products. These families are known as vegans; and they rely on vegetable protein sources, including a variety of soy products such as soy milk, tofu, and soy meats.
Vegans often are very knowledgeable of how to balance several vegetable protein sources to provide an adequate diet for their children. They may send food with the children or ask you to prepare special foods.
The main concerns for vegan children are getting enough calories and sufficient amounts of vitamin B12. Vitamin B12 is only found in animal products.
Several companies manufacture foods fortified with vitamin B12 from yeast, which is acceptable to vegan families. Use of avocados, nuts and nut butters, seeds and seed butters, and dried fruits can add healthful calories to the child’s diet, as can dried fruits.
Most children, even the fussiest of eaters, get sufficient amounts of protein. If a child shies away from protein foods, ensure continuous opportunities to try different meats, cooked in different ways. Frequent exposure often leads to acceptance.
A child that refuses to eat any meat can still grow up to be healthy and strong. Having healthy alternatives available can help children learn to try and enjoy a variety of foods and protein.
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