The Most Common Protein Mistakes Young Athletes Make

by SwimSwam 11

September 24th, 2015 News, Training, Training Intel

By Jill Castle, MS, RDN

Protein is a hot topic among young athletes. Just the other day a mom emailed me and asked, “What do you think about {specific protein supplement}? My son wants to take it to bulk up.”

Other parents ask me how much protein their young athlete needs, which foods are the best sources of protein, or they complain they can’t get their athlete to eat it.

In the world of sports, protein has a magical aura. Some young athletes believe protein is the nutrient they cannot live without, and the one that should be maximized at all costs.

Don’t get me wrong. Protein is important to the young athlete, but it isn’t as enchanting as its reputation may lead you to believe.

All nutrients matter. For the swimmer who is growing, I could argue that carbs, protein and fat are all important. Eating too much of one nutrient or too little of another doesn’t work in the long run for athletic performance, and may even have some drawbacks.

Here are the most common mistakes I see young athletes make with protein:

1. Not enough protein in the diet

Picky eaters, dieters, and vegetarians—I am talking to you. If you are picky about protein foods like meat or beans, are prone to dieting, or are a vegetarian who shies away from plant sources of protein (read: beans and tofu), you may be at risk for low protein intake. Too little protein can compromise growth and development, impair performance and recovery, and place the young athlete at a higher risk for illness.

2. Add too much protein to the diet

Many young athletes who want to bulk up look to adding extra protein to their diet. A driving force behind this is the belief that extra protein will translate to more muscle.

It doesn’t.

Exercise, weight training and a healthy diet are what help young athletes gain muscle strength and mass. For younger children, muscles don’t bulk up, but they do get stronger. It isn’t until the teen years, when hormone levels peak that muscles start to get larger.

When protein is overdone, it becomes a calorie source. Too many calories may end up causing unwanted weight gain. Excess protein can also be a danger to young athletes, causing dehydration and taxing the kidneys, in some cases.

3. Choose fatty sources of protein

Have a hankering for fried chicken, Buffalo wings, or even bacon? While you might be justifying these foods as a protein source, the reality is they also offer a hefty dose of fat (and sometimes very little protein). Extra fat may mean extra calories and potentially some unhealthy fats (read: saturated and trans-fat). Instead, choose lean sources of protein most of the time.

4. Use protein supplements instead of food

Research tells us that young athletes generally don’t need extra protein. In fact, they get two to three times their protein requirements simply from eating food, and without even thinking about it.

Just like eating too many high protein foods, adding protein supplements to the diet of a young athlete may lead to unwanted weight gain, dehydration and a toll on the kidneys and liver.

One of my teen volleyball clients couldn’t understand why she had gained weight over the summer. She had added a protein shake in the morning and afternoon to her regular diet on the advice of her fitness trainer. The extra protein shakes tipped the calorie balance to the high side, which resulted in weight gain. She, like many young athletes, didn’t realize that adding protein to her diet also meant adding calories.

5. Unevenly distribute protein throughout the day

I call this a protein binge, and it looks like this: no protein at breakfast, a little bit at lunch, and a lot at dinner. This isn’t an effective way to use protein in a sports diet. Under normal conditions, the body builds and repairs tissue constantly. If you distribute protein evenly throughout the day (some at all three meals and with snacks), your body will get a steady supply of protein so the job of building and repairing tissue and muscle can happen most effectively.

What’s the biggest protein mistake you see young athletes make?

Jill Castle, MS, RDN is a registered dietitian, childhood nutritionist, and youth sports nutrition expert. She is the author of Eat Like a Champion: Performance Nutrition for Your Young Athlete and writes for USA Swimming and US Rowing. Learn more about Jill at

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6 years ago

What are some good protein shake brands?

7 years ago

I agree with most of these points, and it mainly stems from coaches and trainers (like your personal example) where thinking that upping the protein meant that one would be tone, lean, or bigger and stronger. It’s fairly easy to get around 20-30g every 2-3 hours. However, for people who who “excessive” quantities, you must have some daily requirements for athletes on here. Specifically swimmers, which also breaks down to sprint, middle, and distance. I think listing some options for quick, easy snacks or protein sources would be beneficial.

Lastly, the kidney and dehydration aspect of protein consumption. This is really only a concern for individuals who have an underlying condition where their kidneys can’t do their jobs, hence… Read more »

Jill Castle, MS, RDN
Reply to  MR
7 years ago

MR–as this focuses on the growing swimmer (8-18 give or take the upper end), kidney insult is a real possibility especially if the swimmer is also dehydrated. Ideally, young swimmers need about 0.6 gm protein/pound (read more about the factors that cause this to be different in the book)–so a 100# swimmer needs about 60 gms per day. “Excessive” would be twice or more than that…
As stated, most swimmers meet this and or exceed their needs by 2-3 times without even trying. It’s when swimmers ADD extra powders, shakes, and other protein supplements to their adequate (if not ample protein-containing diet) that they can get into trouble. I had a swimmer once who had heart damage from too… Read more »

Swim Giggles LLC
Reply to  Jill Castle, MS, RDN
7 years ago

If a child gets more than what they should have (?) per day from real food sources, is it safe? Our 11 year old seems to be in a spurt and packing on the muscle from eating well and swimming her heart out. She loves a cheese stick, yogurt, or humus as a snack. On days where she has milk, eggs, PB&J, as well as a protein for dinner, how much real protein is too much?

Mary Hendry
7 years ago

Eating bacon on Sunday Morning… Does it contain a lot of fat compared to protein?

Jill Castle, MS, RDN
Reply to  Mary Hendry
7 years ago

I’d say yes, more fat than protein. However, if you pair it with eggs, you can get your protein there. 🙂

RD swim parent
7 years ago

Thanks Jill for this excellent article! Really appreciate it as it is a constant struggle as a registered dietitian and a swim parent to get coaches, parents, and athletes to understand this. With the heavy marketing and billion dollar supplement industry it continues to be a challenge but your article is perfect! Thanks!

Jill Castle, MS, RDN
Reply to  RD swim parent
7 years ago

You’re welcome! I could write a whole other article on the supplement industry!! Check out my book, I devote a whole chapter to supplements, focusing specifically on what information and research is available about the young athlete (under 18).

7 years ago

A lot of nutritionists are rethinking their views on fat, saying certain kinds of fat are not so bad. Any thoughts?

The Screaming Viking!
Reply to  Mikeh
7 years ago

Yes, the idea that saturated fat is bad is dying a painful death.

Jill Castle, MS, RDN
Reply to  Mikeh
7 years ago

Certain types of saturated fat (from animal sources), particularly dairy sources, are being highlighted as healthier than we thought–more research is needed, though. Best bets: plant fats, ie, vegetable oil, canola oil, olive oil, olives, avocado, and nuts.