Weight gain drinks and protein shakes for kids come with a lot of promises. They claim to help kids grow or at least reach their daily recommended servings of fruits and veggies. They’re marketed as an easy way to boost a picky eater’s protein content, a way to deliver all the necessary nutrients that your kid is definitely deficient in — all in the form of a compact, shelf-stable, easy-to-prep milkshake. It’s easy to see why busy parents would reach for one of these kids protein drinks. It’s not always feasible to put a fresh homemade meal on the table, and even when it is, that’s only half the battle of getting kids to eat it.
But whether these drinks are a convenient snack, healthy meal replacement, or junky, glorified chocolate milk isn’t clear from the packaging alone. Like most things, the utility of kids protein shakes depends on the situation, the drink, and the kid, says registered dietitian nutritionist Shena Jaramillo. Odds are, your kid doesn’t need one. But if you’re going to turn to these kinds of protein or weight gain drinks, whether out of sheer convenience or nutritional concern, here are five myths you should know about.
Myth #1: Most Kids Need More Protein
Kids shakes often advertise the grams of protein they offer, with the implication being, the more protein, the better. Not so fast. While protein might be the buzzword du jour, according to Jaramillo, it’s “one of the things that in the American diet we typically actually get in excess.” A protein drink can “serve as an insurance policy” in situations where kids are seriously lacking good nutrition, but most kids need, if anything, more high-quality carbohydrates, fruits, veggies, and whole grains, Jaramillo says.
Myth #2: Protein Shakes Help Kids Get More Fruits and Vegetables
Kids protein shakes might try and sell you on the servings of fruits and veggies they claim to contain, but there’s a big difference between eating a fruit or vegetable and drinking it. “One of the large components of a fruit and vegetable that make it the most healthy is the amount of fiber in it, and the fiber comes from the actual content of the fruit or vegetable, like the skin of it or the pulp,” says Priya Lawrence, a registered dietitian nutritionist and co-founder of Tried and True Nutrition. “None of that is there in these drinks.”
Jaramillo adds that “most products, when they say they have fruits and vegetables, it’s usually a supplementation of the vitamins and minerals that would be in that product.” And the body does not absorb these nutrients from a manufactured drink as well as it does the nutrients from the original food, Jaramillo says. While the body is good at extracting the magnesium from a banana, for example, gulping it down in a shake loaded with supplements is not guaranteed to bring the same benefits.
“While they’re great in addition, to get that boost of additional nutrients or calories,” says Jaramillo, “we still want to try as much as possible to get our micronutrients from food.”
Myth #3: Parents Can Use Protein Shakes to Treat Serious Nutrition Deficiencies
In cases where a child’s nutrition deficiencies are more serious, and eating regular meals is a real challenge, protein drinks can serve as one tool for adding calories and nutrients to their diet. But it’s best to leave that decision up to a professional.
When a kid is on the smaller size, parents might worry that picky eating is to blame. But it’s only useful to compare a child’s growth to their past growth, not their peers’. Jaramillo says that picky eating could become serious enough to lead to malnourishment when a kid isn’t gaining weight or drops a level in their growth curve. In other words, a kid who steadily remains in the lowest 10th percentile of weights for their age group isn’t necessarily unhealthy (but of course check with your doctor). It’s when a kid drops down a few percentiles that intervention becomes necessary.
“At that point there could be other things going on, and we wouldn’t want to necessarily just supplement with the protein shake alone. We’re going to want to supplement with other interventions also,” Jaramillo says. “In general if your kid’s underweight, I think there are things to do to get more food in their diet,” says Lawrence, who recommends addressing concerns with a doctor at a child’s well visit.
In rare cases, especially if a child has autism, extreme picky eating could be a sign of something called Avoidant Restrictive Food Intake Disorder (ARFID). Children with ARFID might have an aversion to certain textures, a fear of choking, or some other issue that explains why they avoid certain foods. Protein shakes can be useful for children with ARFID because they pack a bunch of calories and don’t need to be chewed. “If you’ve got a kid with ARFID, where your goal is to replace the nutrients, calories, and protein [that they’re not getting from food], we’re going to want to go with as high a protein content as possible,” Jaramillo says. She recommends looking for as much protein and as little added sugar as possible, adding the caveat that some sugar is a fine tradeoff if it means the kid will actually drink the thing.
Myth #4: Kids Protein Shakes Are a Healthy Meal Replacement
Sure, kids’ protein drinks can be a useful tool for kids with extreme food aversions or those suffering from malnutrition. But for the majority of healthy kids, “they’re completely unnecessary,” Jaramillo says. Unless a doctor or specialized dietitian recommends these kinds of protein drinks to treat a medical concern, parents should use them only as a last resort snack, not a regular meal replacement. “Really I would say the only time that it’s really appropriate for a child to use this as a meal supplement is if they’re on the go they forgot lunch and there’s really no other option,” Jaramillo says.
Myth #5: Kids Protein Shakes Are the Cheapest and Easiest Option
Many of these drinks sell for over $2 a serving, rivaling your takeout coffee habit. If you’re looking for a cheap, nutritious, drinkable kid’s meal or snack, you’re better off loading up on fruits and vegetables and blending up your own smoothies.
Both dietitians recommended smoothies because they’re customizable and an easy format for sneaking in greens and extra calories. Plus, they retain some of the fiber from whole fruits and vegetables that isn’t found in juices and packaged drinks. Even greens can often go unnoticed when they’re blended with fruit.
For extra cost-effectiveness, Lawrence suggests sticking to frozen produce, which is just as nutritious as fresh, but cheaper and longer-lasting. For bulking up smoothies with additional protein, fat, and calories, Lawrence opts for peanut butter, while Jaramillo suggests adding full-fat yogurt or tofu.
Myth #6: All Protein Shakes Are Created Equally
If you really need to rely on a packaged protein drink, there are a few things to look out for. While there’s no one-size-fits-all recommendation, Lawrence says it’s a good idea to look for shakes that are fortified with calcium, iron, and Vitamin D. Limiting added sugars is always good. Jaramillo says Carnation Instant Breakfast is a good option. But, “I don’t think [protein shakes] should be up in a high category of a choice. I think the best option would be to try and provide options for your kids for different foods to eat, keeping stuff more available. Having more foods at the table for them to try, having parents trying different foods so that the kids kind of see the different foods.”
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