A Dietitian Explains the Importance of Protein to a 6-Year-Old

updated May 30, 2019
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In Explain It Like I’m 6, a dietitian answers the burning health questions from Associate Food Editor Meghan Splawn‘s daughter, Ella.

Talking about protein in relationship to health and wellness has become so ubiquitous that even Meghan’s 6-year-old daughter kinda knows what it’s about. When the two were recently talking about healthy eating questions, Ella asked:

What is that thing you say I need, po-teen? What’s that?

Let’s ask the expert!

Sally Kuzemchak is the author of The 101 Healthiest Foods for Kids and the founder of RealMomNutrition.com, a no-judgments zone about feeding a family. We asked Sally to answer five of Ella’s questions about health and wellness in the easiest way possible.

Protein is a nutrient, which is something in food that keeps our bodies working the way they should. You need protein every day to do a whole bunch of stuff, like give you energy; keep your heart going; and make new skin, muscles, blood, and bone for your body.

How Does Protein Get the Job Done?

The way protein can do all these different jobs has to do with how proteins are built. Each protein is made up of little parts called amino acids. They all have complicated names like leucine and tryptophan, but an easier way to think about it is to imagine a whole bunch of beads strung onto a necklace. The protein is the necklace and the amino acids are the beads.

There are 20 different kinds of these amino acid “beads” the body can arrange onto a protein necklace. When you eat protein, those beads come off the string so your body can rearrange them in all different kinds of ways to make the proteins you need — whether it’s a protein to create more muscle, make chemicals that send messages around your body, or help your body form a scab when you get cut. By arranging these beads in different ways, the body makes thousands of different kinds of proteins that do different things.

How Do You Get Protein?

Your body can make some of those 20 amino acid beads itself, but others have to be eaten through food. The protein in meat has different beads than the protein in beans, spaghetti, or even broccoli. Yes, even though you might think about meat when you think about protein, a lot of foods have protein in them — including vegetables. In fact, pretty much all foods have some protein in them except fruit and fats like butter and oil. So even if you don’t eat meat, you can still get a lot of protein.

Since protein is in so many foods, most people get enough. But when something happens and you’re not eating enough protein — like when you’re really sick and can’t eat enough for longer than a few days — your body will have to break down proteins in your muscles to get the amino acid beads it needs. That’s bad for your body.

Keep in mind that when you’re growing, you need more protein. Same goes for when you’re sick or hurt and your body is trying to get better. Women who are pregnant need more protein too, since they’re growing an extra person. And no, despite what some body builders might tell you, eating extra protein won’t make extra muscle — it will just get stored in case you need energy later.

Thanks so much, Sally!