Nutrient in the Spotlight – Protein

Protein has been the in-vogue nutrient over the past few years, with celebrity chefs to body builders claiming we need to eat large amounts in order to be healthy.

But how much protein do we actually need?  What does it actually do in our body? And how much protein do our children need?

Protein is found in every food we eat, in various quantities. Most common in the Australian diet is meat, poultry and fish (33%), grains and grain based products (25%) and diary products (16%).1

Protein is made up of smaller parts, called amino acids. Think of these as the individual lego blocks (amino acids) that stack together to form larger objects (proteins).  Some amino acids are needed from food – we cannot make them in our body. Amino acids and protein are used in our body to create a strong immune system; to build muscle so we can walk, talk and breathe; to create hormone messengers in our body. This is why eating some protein in our diet is important.

But how much do we actually need?

In the dietetics world we estimate adult daily needs at around 0.8g of protein per kilo of bodyweight. This means an average sized male needs around 65g per day and an average sized female needs 48g per day. As an example, a 100g steak contains around 25g protein, a piece of bread between 3-4g, a cup of cooked pasta has 10g, a cup of milk around 9g. It doesn’t take much to reach our target! Only when we are unwell or trying to build muscle do we need increased protein in our diet.

And our children?

Infants get enough protein from either breastmilk or formula to meet their needs. Young children aged 1-3 years only need around 14 grams of protein per day. Older children aged 408 years need around 20 grams per day. Given the Australian diet is based on wheat (a high protein grain), meat and dairy, young children get their protein needs very easily. I’ve seen many fussy eaters who avoid meat, and not yet have I seen a young child who is not getting enough protein.

As children get older and bodies grow, their protein needs increase. 9-13 year olds need between 35-40 grams per day, 14-18 year olds between 45-65 grams per day. These still aren’t high quantities to get from food each day.

Why the importance on meat for young children then?

It’s not the protein. Other nutrients that are found in meat such as zinc and iron are very important for children’s growth and development, but even they can be found in other sources such as nuts, legumes (lentils, chickpeas etc), shellfish and wholegrains.

So my fussy child doesn’t need protein powder

No. Medical nutrition supplements certainly contain protein as they do every other nutrient that is needed in the body, but it is rare for a child to need to take a specific protein supplement unless they are unwell and have increased needs.

1. NHMRC nutrient reference values, Protein, sighted 4th April 2019, website:

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About the Author

Emma Robinson

Emma is an Accredited Practicing Dietitian with experience working with infants, children and adults across a range of areas including allergies, feeding difficulties, fussy eating, growth difficulties and chronic conditions. She is passionate about nutrition during pregnancy and early years, and helping children and their families discover the joys of food and eating together. I like: camping/outdoor adventures, strong family and friend connections, being active, and of course all things food! I dislike: snakes, being cold, and I have an irrational phobia of ET – one day I’ll get around to working through it! Favourite colour: blue

“Life is what happens while you’re busy making other plans”                            – John Lennon 

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