It’s almost a rite of passage when the baby of the house chews on her first chicken drumstick or some minced roast lamb.
After all, she’s started commando crawling and rolls around like a puppy – she needs a good dose of protein to build up her muscles, right?
Well, not as much as you think. In fact, too much protein, too soon, is bad news for baby in the long term.
A new Australian study, building on previous research, suggests the amount of protein your baby eats at nine months of age may determine if she’ll be overweight or obese by the age of five.
That’s because a higher-protein diet tends to promote ‘rapid growth in infancy’, which is associated with an enhanced risk for obesity, diabetes, hypertension, cardiovascular disease and osteopenia (weakened bones) in later life.
But isn’t protein a good thing?
Dr Miaobing (Jazzmin) Zheng is a research fellow from Deakin’s Institute for Physical Activity and Nutrition (IPAN).
Dr Zheng said that high-protein consumption by adults is considered beneficial for weight-loss, because it makes you feel full for longer.
But babies are different to adults – and their healthy development relies on a stable growth rate. Too much protein and the growth rate exceeds what is healthy and the baby in destined for problems later in life.
Dr Zheng said babies require only small amounts of high-quality protein in their diets, in addition to breastmilk or formula.
Some infant formulas contain twice as much protein as breast milk.
“High protein intake in babies can place them at greater risk of being overweight and obese in later childhood,” Dr Zheng said.
One in five children under the age of five are overweight or obese. As they move into adulthood, two-thirds of them will be overweight or obese.
How much is too much?
The adequate allowance of protein for a baby is about 14 grams a day. Many babies have twice that amount which Dr Zheng is “probably fine”.
But 10 to 15 per cent of babies are consuming 60 to 65 grams a day.
Doesn’t sound like a lot? The recommended protein intake for an adult is about 50 grams a day.
Dr Zheng said the attendant risk of obesity was associated more with animal-based protein – meat, chicken, fish and dairy. These are important sources of calcium and other nutrients, but best in small doses.
“Animal-based protein tends to promote insulin and growth hormone,” she said.
Plant-based proteins from beans, lentils and nut butters, are less problematic, because they contain more fibre and promote a healthier gut bacteria.
What kind of study was this?
The correlation between protein consumption and obesity risk was confirmed in separate studies including data analysis of children participating in the Melbourne INFANT Program and a systematic review of current research.
In the first study, nine-month-old babies were found to be eating twice as much protein as recommended for children between seven and 12 months.
“The babies who were eating greater amounts of protein, particularly meat-based protein, at nine months of age were more likely
to be obese by the age of five,” Dr Zheng said.
In the second study, involving a systematic review of 16 studies across seven countries, Dr Zheng confirmed that higher total protein intake during the first two years of life was associated with higher obesity risk in later childhood and early adolescence, from three to 10 years of age.
Dr Zheng and her colleagues hope these findings “will give healthcare professionals the evidence they need to provide better dietary advice to new parents as well as contribute evidence for improved dietary recommendations for protein intake, both quantity and quality, during infancy”.