Protein power... how much do children really need?
Protein-rich, low-carb diets are currently popular with grown-ups, but how much protein do children need?
Five a day, or an apple a day - we all know how important fruit and vegetables are for children. It's why so many of us devote time to hiding them in pasta sauces. And we know that there are good fats and bad fats (even if we can't always remember which is which). And of course, sugar is the undisputed mortal enemy.
But what about protein? It tends not to come up for discussion as often as the other food groups. How much protein do our children need, and what's the best way to get it? And is there an upper safe limit to watch out for too?
Protein is pretty important. It builds, maintains and replaces tissue in the body. A lot of the body is in fact protein - skin, hair, nails, bones, and muscle, as well as hormones and enzymes.
And here's the science bit - it's short, I promise: proteins are made up of building blocks called amino acids, some of which are not made by the body, and therefore must be supplied by food. Essentially, protein provides us with energy and helps support growth and development.
So it's clear that protein is important. But how much exactly do children need?
"Protein should make up about 10pc to 15pc of children's daily calorie intake, and there is no benefit to eating more than this," says Aveen Bannon, dietician and founder of Dublin Nutrition Centre. "The recommended daily allowance is based on average weights for age groups. So children aged one to three years, who weigh about 13kg, need 33g of protein daily."
To translate this into simple food terms, an average chicken breast contains about 30g of protein, an egg might contain between 8-10g, and a yoghurt contains 4-6g of protein.
So a toddler who eats half a chicken breast, a scrambled egg, and a yoghurt is well on his way to meeting his requirements.
And beyond the obvious chicken and eggs, there are plenty of great sources of protein that you can try with your children. Lean meat, turkey, fish, beans, pulses, milk, cheese, yogurt, tofu, peanut butter and nuts (if your children are over five) are all good ways to get protein into kids. About a quarter of a child's dinner plate should contain protein, with the rest of the plate divided between vegetables or salad, and carbohydrates.
Carbohydrates are an important food group for children too, something that is easy to forget, particularly for dieting adults who are avoiding carbs in favour of protein.
"The carbohydrate fear needs to be addressed," says Bannon. "Carbs should be respected, not feared. Carbohydrates play an important role in our diets and the key thing is to choose the right type of carbohydrates, that is, not processed. Eliminating carbs from the diet does inadvertently lead to a higher protein intake and then the balance is lost."
This is where the question of an upper limit comes in. Is there a risk that adults on high-protein, low-carb diets could be inadvertently giving their children too much protein?
"Your body doesn't store extra protein, so if you eat more than you need, you will excrete it. There has definitely been a trend towards higher protein diets in recent times but this should not transfer to children," says Bannon. "Excess protein in a child's diet can have adverse affects. Some research has indicated that a high protein intake in infancy and young childhood increases the risk of obesity later in life. It can also lead to higher intakes of saturated fats, mainly through lack of balance in the diet. Other potential side-effects include dehydration, loss of calcium and kidney problems."
But of course, these are extreme examples. If you are providing a balanced diet for your child, there is nothing to worry about.
"Yes," agrees Bannon. "Once you are using wholesome foods and including protein, carbohydrate and colour at every meal, your child is more likely to have a balanced diet."
What's clear is that protein provides children with the building blocks needed for strong bodies and minds, and it's worth getting it right. But also, over-thinking it isn't necessary. As is the case with most things in life, balance is key.
So from now on in my house, it's an apple a day with a side of nuts.