PARENTS are being warned to watch their children’s intake of meat, cheese and milk after a study found toddlers were consuming more than four times too much protein.

Health experts said parents may unwittingly be putting their children’s health at risk, with high protein linked to higher levels of body fat.

Researchers at the European Congress on Obesity in Porto, Portugal, presented data from a study of 3,564 children who were weighed and measured eight times from the age of one to 10.

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They also had their body fat and other body mass analysed using a dual X-ray absorptiometry (DXA) scanner at ages six and 10.

Dr Trudy Voortman and colleagues from the Erasmus University Medical Centre, in Rotterdam in the Netherlands, assessed protein intake at age one from animal sources, including cheese, milk, meat, fish and some toddler foods, and from non-animal sources such as grains, cereals and soy.

They also looked at total food intake from other food groups, including carbo- hydrates and fats.

The study found that those in the top fifth for protein intake at the age of one were 1kg heavier by age 10, compared with those in the bottom fifth.

All of this extra weight was purely fat, rather than other body mass such as muscles or bones.

The finding held true regardless of whether protein was replacing carbohydrates or fats in the diet.

Dr Voortman said that a child aged one, who weighs around 10kg, needs less than 10g of protein a day. But the study found that youngsters this age were typically consuming 40g of protein a day.

She said that, although the study was on Dutch children, the pattern of protein intake was similar in other countries, including the UK.

And she said it was not just the case that children were being given too much milk, with other protein sources such as cheese, yoghurt, meat and fish all adding up.

This pattern also tends to continue through childhood, she said, with older children also given too much protein.

She said: “It was the protein from animal sources that was having the real effect. A lot of parents see giving children lots of protein as a healthy thing to do but this may not be the case.

“Our study showed that protein is contributing to purely fat mass.

“Breast milk is quite low in protein and there are higher amounts in formula, although there are efforts to reduce protein levels in formula.

“People also use follow-on formula milks and, compared to regular milk they are okay for protein, but the simple fact is that children simply don’t need that much.

“The overall message to parents is don’t overrate protein. They are generally getting way more than they need.”