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What your child eats has a direct effect on how they feel and function. Most parents aim to give their children as much love and attention to enable them to develop physically, mentally and emotionally. What we sometimes forget to consider is that every step your child takes – physically, mentally and emotionally, largely depends on how well their body is nourished.

If you want your child to be healthy and happy, intelligent and resourceful your child should consume the right carbohydrates, fats and protein, along with vital vitamins and minerals. Last week we looked at the truth about carbs and stressed the importance of balancing blood sugar levels to maintain your child’s energy and stabilise their mood. This week we’re looking at the role protein plays in your child’s overall growth and development and how it is key to balancing blood sugar levels.

The technical bit
When your child eats protein-rich foods such as meat, eggs, fish, dairy, lentils, beans or quinoa, their digestive system breaks down the protein first into peptides and then into amino acids. By linking amino acids together in different sequences, their body then builds up new muscle or organ tissue, enzymes and neurotransmitters – the chemical messengers of the brain. A good supply of protein will keep your child well supplied with the building blocks that make growth and development possible.

Furthermore, fibre and protein work to slow down the release of carbohydrates into the blood which helps balance blood sugar. So, always try to combine protein-rich foods with high-fibre carbohydrates for the ideal, balanced meal or snack.

How much is enough?
A child needs to eat between one or two 20g servings of protein a day, depending on their age, growth pattern and exercise level, all of which govern their body’s need for protein. The handy chart below shows the recommended daily protein in-take based on age.

2-3 years: 13g protein
4-8 years: 19g protein
9-13 years: 34g protein
14-18 years (girls): 46g protein
14-18 years (boys): 52g protein

Aside from making sure your child is getting the right amount of protein, it is also important to ensure the quality of the protein consumed is high. The better the balance of amino acids in a protein, the better the quality of the protein. Eggs, natural yoghurt and cottage cheese are all high-quality sources of protein.  Quinoa, brown rice as well as fish and chicken are also all proteins of excellent quality. Chickpeas, lentils, sunflower and pumpkin seeds as well as cashew nuts and almonds are considered reasonable quality proteins, as are vegetables such as frozen peas, broccoli and spinach.

Top tip:
When eaten together, lentils and rice or beans and rice, are considered excellent quality source of protein as the lentils and beans are rich in the amino acids that rice is low in, therefore increasing the overall quality of the protein being consumed. Upping your child’s protein intake can make all the difference to their mental and physical energy.

What about vegetarians?
For a vegetarian child, a typical day’s worth of protein might be any two of the following:

  • A small tub of natural yoghurt
  • A handful of seeds or nuts
  • A 140g serving of tofu
  • A small cup of quinoa
  • A small serving of beans with rice

The trick for vegetarians is to eat ‘seed’ foods – food that would grow if you planted them – like nuts, beans, lentils, peas, maize or the germ of grains such as wheat or oat. ‘Flower’ foods such as broccoli or cauliflower are also relatively rich in protein.

How much is too much?
More doesn’t always mean better and your child can have too much protein which can have negative health consequences. A daily protein intake of more than 85g a day can contribute to serious health issues such as kidney disease and osteoporosis. So, as with all nutrition, balance is important.