November 2010: Protein—Building Blocks for Healthy Young Bodies

Happy November to everyone!  It is almost time for Thanksgiving turkey.  Our high protein seasonal dinner fits well with what we learned last November from guest author Katherine Sumner about fall/winter seasonal eating.  She told us about the importance of increasing protein and fat intake this time of year.  (To read more about fall/winter seasonal eating, please click here).  I grew up with a biochemist (my wonderful dad) constantly saying, “make sure you eat enough protein!”.  I always try to make sure that I’m eating protein throughout the day, and that my kids are too, but what is the right amount?  Why is protein so important?  How can you be sure that you and your kids are getting enough protein every day?  To help us answer these questions, I asked UIC dietetics student Kristen Ide.  She has provided us with a lot of great information, supplemented by recipe links and daily meal plans.  Enjoy your Thanksgiving turkey!

The Importance of Protein, by Kristen Ide, MPH

Chances are, you have heard about protein.  You know you need to eat it.  You probably at one point in time have also worried about whether or not your child is getting enough of it.   But what is it and why is it important?  Protein makes up the building blocks for our body.  It builds the tissues in our body like muscle, and organs like our heart.  It also helps in other roles like transporting oxygen to breathe, and maintaining our immune system to fight disease.  It is even in our DNA!  The protein in our body is constantly breaking down, which is why it is essential to make sure we eat enough protein to replace it.

When protein is consumed, our body breaks it down into smaller units called amino acids.  The amino acids are what our body uses to replace the muscle and tissues in our body.  Scientists have discovered 22 different amino acids.  Some are much more important than others.  Many of those we don’t need to worry about because our body can automatically make them.  However, there are 8 amino acids that our body can’t make.  Those are considered “essential” because our body requires us to eat them.

Now why am I telling you about amino acids?  For the simple reason that different foods contain different types.  Protein can be found in a variety of foods including eggs, meats, dairy, vegetables, beans, nuts, and seeds.  The foods that contain all of your essential amino acids are animal sources which include beef, fish, poultry, eggs, and dairy products.  Vegetable protein, which includes beans, nuts, seeds, and soy, is considered incomplete because it is missing at least one of the 8 essential amino acids.  However, even if these are your only sources of protein, you can still get what you need by mixing it up.  As each food contains different amino acids, by mixing it up and eating a variety of foods, you can still get what you need for your body to function properly.

For our children, protein is essential for growth.  Is your child consuming enough protein?  A general rule of thumb is that a person needs 0.4 – 0.5g of protein per pound the person weighs.  An easy way to calculate that is to take the weight, and divide by two.  So a person who weighs 100 pounds needs approximately 50g of protein.  One can always look at the nutrition label to find out how many grams of protein the food has.  You may now think I am crazy, wanting you to count how much protein your child is getting.  Don’t worry, I don’t count my protein, and I am not asking you to do that either.  If a person is eating a variety of healthy foods, they should be meeting their protein requirements.

Below is a sample of different foods, with the amount of protein per serving:

Food Serving Size Amount of Protein per serving (in grams)
*Cottage cheese, low fat ½ cup 14
Soybeans ½ cup 14
Soy milk 1 cup 8-11
*Chicken breast, boneless/skinless 1 oz 9
*Ground sirloin 1 oz 8
*Milk (all fats kinds) 1 cup 8
Peanut butter 2 tbsp 8
Beans ½ cup 5-7
*Fish 1 oz 6.5
*Egg 1 egg 6
Nuts 1 oz 4-6
*Lunch meat 1 oz 3.5

* Contains all essential amino acids
Don’t think I’d send you on your way without some tools to help you out!  Below is a 3 day menu to help with some ideas that will provide a good source of protein for you and your children.  Please keep in mind the amount of food you provide your children will vary with their age, weight, and appetite.  This sample is for approximately a 70 pound child.  Children less than 2 should receive whole milk.  Also, feel free to modify these menus to fit your individual needs.  Children may need multiple exposures of a food before they like it, so don’t give up the first time!

Calories Protein (in grams)
Day 1
½ serving of Apple Pie Porridge, 4 oz low fat yogurt 228 9.5
Snack: 4 oz Skim Milk and ½ Banana 94 5
½ serving Bulgur Chickpea Salad, 4 oz Skim Milk 142 4
Hummus with 1/4 cup Carrots and Broccoli 125 3.5
½ serving Chicken and Carrots, 4 oz Skim Milk 150 17
Total 739 39
Day 2
½ serving Pumpkin Pecan Oatmeal with ¼ Grapefruit 198 6
½ Orange with 4 oz Skim Milk 75 5
½ serving Chicken and Rice 138 9
¼ cup raisins 125 1.3
½ serving Lentil Tostadas * with 4 oz Skim Milk 265 14
Total 801 35.3
Day 3 (vegetarian option)
½ serving Tropical Breakfast Bowl 135 6
½ Handful of Baby Carrots with 4 oz Skim Milk 59 4.5
½ serving Vegetable Lentil Soup with ½ Poached Egg 88 7
2 oz Almonds with 4 oz Orange Juice 406 12
½ serving Quinoa Salad with 4 oz Skim Milk 157 8.5
Total 845 38

Some other great high protein recipes I would like to point out (from Healthy Kids Ideas Exchange) are:

Chicken Thighs with Maple Mustard Rub in the Slow Cooker

Harvest Stew

Easy Fish Dinner

See all Fall/Winter seasonal recipes.

How do you make sure your kids get their proper protein intake? Please share your ideas with us in the comments section below!

Be well,

Kathryn & Kristen

Back copies of Healthy Kids Ideas Exchange are always available online.

Don’t forget to check out the recent posts on the Garden Tales and Simple Dinner Ideas Blogs!

Garden Tales:   a seasonal adventure for you and your kids to enjoy all the wonderful bounty of edible and ornamental gardens.

Simple Dinners Ideas: on-going inspiration for easy meals your entire family will enjoy.


This column is for information only, and no part of its contents should be construed as medical advice, diagnosis, recommendation or endorsement by the author. You should always ask your physician for his or her recommendation before starting any new health-related activity.


  1. From Dr. Sears:
    Feed Your Family Smart Carbs and Proteins
    Around 50 percent of the energy from the carbohydrates children eat goes to fueling their growing brains. Muscles can store glucose, the body’s main fuel, extracted from digested carbs. But the brain can’t store much glucose. It depends on a steady supply of glucose in the bloodstream. If the blood sugar dips too low, brain function can deteriorate within minutes. The brain is very selective about the carbs it craves, and it prefers that you eat the right carbs with the right partners at the right time. If brain cells could comment on the best ways to give them the carbs they need, here’s what they would request:
    • Partner carbs with fiber and protein. The brain prefers carbs that are naturally packaged with protein and fiber. These two partners slow the digestive process and steady the rate at which glucose enters the blood. Without protein or fiber in a food, the carbs are digested quickly and rush into the bloodstream so fast that they cause a sugar high followed by a sugar low, as the body releases a large amount of insulin to handle the sugar. Unstable blood sugar levels lead to unstable brain chemistry, which makes it hard for kids to pay attention and control their behavior.
    • Graze on good carbs. Kids and adults don’t think well when they’re hungry. Frequent mini-meals throughout the day are good for the brain.
    • Eat protein for brain power. High-protein foods perk up the brain by increasing levels of two “alertness” neurotransmitters, dopamine and norepinephrine. A high-protein meal really is a “power breakfast” or a “power lunch.”
    • Add more protein to each meal and snack.
    • Avoid fiberless carbs (e.g., candy and soda). Instead, choose the fiber-filled carbs in fruits, vegetables, nuts, and whole grains.
    • Feed your child a brainy breakfast. Since proteins perk up the brains, send your kids off to school with a high-protein, healthy-carb, and healthy-fat breakfast, such as whole-grain cereal and yogurt.

  2. Kathryn - HKIE says:

    Interesting information about protein from milk. There main protein sources of milk are casein and whey. A study in the upcoming March issue of American Journal of Clinical Nutrition aimed to determine if dietary supplementation with whey protein powder improved the lipid metabolism in humans with abdominal obesity, thus improving cardiovascular disease risk.

    Researchers compared the effects of whey protein versus casein. After 12 weeks of consuming 60 grams of protein, the randomized, double-blinded, intervention study, subjects consuming casein protein exhibited worse lipid levels, whereas subjects consuming whey protein exhibited a beneficial reduction in lipids, specifically triglycerides.

    A theory is that casein is inflammatory (it is also the cause of most milk allergy).

    If you choose to supplement with whey protein, be sure that the whey is derived only from a grass-fed herd and produced as a microfiltered concentrate.

    Isolate is the word to AVOID. This method often incorporates MSG and other harmful chemicals into the product. The high heat denatures many of whey’s immune benefits.

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