Too much protein a risk for childhood obesity

Media release
18 January 2017

New research has found that Victorian infants are consuming too much protein. High protein intakes in young children have been linked with rapid growth and higher rates of overweight and obesity.

New research has found that Victorian infants are consuming too much protein.  High protein intakes in young children have been linked with rapid growth and higher rates of overweight and obesity.

Published today in the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, dietary data from the Melbourne InFANT study was examined to identify protein intakes, food sources of protein, and factors associated with higher protein intakes in the first five years of life.

Professor Karen Campbell from the Institute for Physical Activity and Nutrition at Deakin University said the evidence showed the amount of protein consumed by infants and children in the study was two to three times greater than the Australian recommendations across these vital early years.

"In early life infants were consuming around twice as much protein as is required for good health but by 3.5 to 5 years of age protein intakes were around three times the recommendations," she said.

The study found that the main source of protein for infants at nine months was formula milk or infant formula and that earlier cessation of breastfeeding and earlier introduction of solids were both associated with increased protein intakes.

From age 18 months up until five years, the protein source was overwhelmingly from milk and milk products, followed by breads and cereals and then meat and meat products.

"This identification of where protein comes from in children's diets is important if we are to reduce children's protein intake and still maintain an adequate diet.

"While exclusive breastfeeding for the first six months of life is recommended, if parents are feeding their infants formula milk, then it is important to consider choosing lower protein infant formulas (around 1.3 to 1.5grams protein per 100mls formula).  

"From the age of one, children's milk intake should be limited to around 500mls a day.  More than this amount isn't necessary and it may reduce appetite and result in a child having a less balanced diet," she said.

The InFANT study also found that calcium intake at 18 months and three and a half years was 50 per cent greater than the recommendations and yet iron intakes at all ages were consistently lower than recommendations.

Professor Campbell said that despite the potential negative health impact of eating too much protein, it is important to remember many protein-dense foods are also often nutrient-dense and in some instances may be a child's main source of key nutrients such as calcium and iron.

"It is clear that to reduce protein intakes without compromising other nutrient requirements we need to focus on milk and milk products, not on foods like lean fresh meats - one of our most important sources of iron for children," Professor Campbell said.

"Despite being the main contributor to protein intakes, the inclusion of milk and milk products is still important in a child's diet - the trick is to get the balance of protein rich foods right to ensure children are achieving a balanced diet. 

"Lean red meat, poultry, fish, iron-enriched infant cereals, tofu and legumes are good sources of protein and are also rich in iron, to meet those increasing nutritional and developmental needs of infants at from around six months of age.

"This study provides unique insights into young children's food sources of protein and has the potential to help address the high levels of protein and protein-related obesity risk in young children," Professor Campbell said.

The paper can be found at: http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S221226721730326X

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Media release Faculty of Health, School of Exercise and Nutrition Sciences Institute for Physical Activity and Nutrition (IPAN)

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