Proteins have a structural function, which means that they provide material used by the body to create new proteins required for tissue formation, tissue renewal and other functions, such as fighting infections and regulating hormones. They are converted into energy only if carbohydrate or fat intake is insufficient, a situation that may compromise the growth process and the development of infants and young people.
It is logical then that protein requirements increase during growth stages, such as childhood, adolescence, gestation and breastfeeding. In addition, from adolescence, boys develop more muscle than girls and need a greater intake of this nutrient.
Are all proteins the same?
Proteins are formed by smaller units called amino acids. Some amino acids are essential, i.e. they are essential to the body but we are unable to produce them and they can only be obtained from food. Foods that contain all the essential amino acids in the required proportions are deemed to contain high biological value proteins.
Which foods are protein-rich?
Animal proteins have a high biological value and are found in eggs, meat, fish, milk and dairy products. Plant proteins are low in essential amino acids and are found in pulses (except soy), cereals and nuts. However, good nutritional quality can be obtained by mixing pulses with cereals, and this is exactly the combination that underpins the pulse-based dishes that children often do not like.
How much protein do we need?
Proteins should provide between 12% and 15% of the total daily calories in a healthy diet. As proteins are not stored in the body, the required amount should be consumed daily, as shown in Dietary servings and Serving sizes for children.
A low protein intake can have a negative impact on growth and development. However, too much protein can lead to excess weight or obesity. We need to find a healthy balance.