Higher Protein Intake Linked to Lower Depressive Symptoms in Youth Athletes
As a parent of two young athletes, I know the importance of proper nutrition, particularly when it comes to protein intake. Protein plays a vital role in the growth, development, and performance of young athletes. However, a recent study has found that protein may have more importance than just building and maintaining muscle. This study showed that student-athletes who consumed diets higher in protein had lower levels of depressive symptoms.
The researchers conducted a 10-month study to explore whether the eating specific macronutrients (carbohydrates, proteins, fat) would predict the development of future depressive symptoms in adolescent elite athletes. What they found was that higher protein consumption was associated with lower levels of depressive symptoms, while consumption of other types of macronutrients were not associated with depressive symptoms.
Although more research is needed to determine how nutrition education and dietary modification can be used to prevent depressive symptoms among adolescent elite athletes, the study showed just one more reason that getting enough protein is important.
Why Do Youth Athletes Need Protein?
Protein is an essential macronutrient that serves as the building block for muscles, bones, and tissues. During physical activity, especially strenuous exercise, the body breaks down muscle fibers. Protein aids in repairing and rebuilding these damaged tissues, leading to muscle growth and overall recovery. Protein also plays a role in supporting the immune system, increasing energy levels, and maintaining healthy hormonal function.
Determining Protein Needs for Youth Athletes
The protein requirements of youth athletes vary depending on their age, weight, gender, sport, and training intensity. While there isn't a one-size-fits-all answer, several guidelines can help establish appropriate protein intake levels:
Ages 6-13: 0.5-0.8 grams of protein per pound of body weight.
Ages 14-18: 0.6-0.9 grams of protein per pound of body weight.
Weight-based calculation: Multiply body weight (in pounds) by the recommended protein intake range based on age group to get an estimate. Adjust within the range depending on your athlete’s activity level and goals.
It is important to note that these recommendations are general guidelines, and consulting with a health care practitioner, particularly one that specializes in sports nutrition can provide personalized advice based on specific needs.
Sources of Protein for Youth Athletes
Meeting protein requirements can be achieved through a well-balanced diet that includes various protein-rich foods, such as:
- Lean meats (chicken, turkey, fish)
- Dairy products (milk, yogurt, cheese)
- Legumes (beans, lentils, chickpeas)
- Nuts and seeds
- Quinoa and whole grains
- Tofu and tempeh (for vegetarian or vegan athletes)
If your athlete struggles to get enough protein with food, consider adding a protein smoothie or shake to their daily routine. A smoothie can add anywhere from 17 to 30 grams of extra protein to their day.
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