For many people, getting pregnant means putting every choice you make under the microscope, especially when it comes to what you’re putting into your body. Some decisions are obvious, but what about protein, or more specifically, protein supplements? To help answer these questions, here’s a guide to understanding the role that protein plays during pregnancy, along with the questions to bring up with your doctor before supplementing with protein.
As with most medical questions, there isn’t one universal answer, since this can depend on a number of variables that are unique to every woman. At the end of the day, your doctor is your best resource and can help you make an informed decision about what’s right for both you and your baby.
It’s no surprise that a balanced diet is essential during pregnancy for fetal development, but the right balance of protein during this time can directly impact this. Protein is key for fetal tissue growth, particularly for the baby’s brain. It also plays an important role in the growth of breast and uterine tissue for mothers, especially during the third trimester.
Excessively low intake of protein is associated with potentially negative effects in terms of weight and length at birth. International guidelines agree in recommending an increased protein intake during pregnancy, especially during the second and third trimesters, to ensure the additional 21 grams needed for maternal and fetal tissues and placenta. Protein even helps increase the mother’s blood supply, ensuring that oxygen and vital nutrients reach the placenta.
This is especially important if you already use protein powders (particularly in smoothies or shakes), or if the powders themselves contain any additives, like stevia or other sweeteners. Some protein powders can contain ingredients like dextrins, maltodextrins, fillers, or thickeners that your doctor may advise against.
If your regular diet before pregnancy already included protein powder, your new protein intake may be different from what you’re used to. Protein can help with the necessary weight gain that comes with a healthy pregnancy, since the average woman needs about 300 additional calories per day to support fetal growth. Though you’re not really “eating for two,” this translates to about 25 to 30 pounds of weight gain during pregnancy for the average woman, while underweight women often need to put on slightly more, around 28 to 40 pounds. Women who enter pregnancy overweight only need to gain between 15 to 25 pounds. Regardless of starting weight, protein supplements like whey can help with the necessary gain, since they’ve been shown to increase muscle gain when combined with exercise.
The exact amount of protein you consume during this period of weight gain, however, is key. Studies have shown that a lower protein diet during pregnancy can lead to babies with smaller body measurements compared to those who had been subjected to a balanced protein diet, while a diet with too much protein has been shown to produce the opposite effect, and may even be a potential contributor to issues later in life.
So how much protein during pregnancy is right? While this is definitely something you should confirm with your doctor, since each body is unique, experts recommend around 71 grams of protein per day, although factors like carrying twins and the stage of pregnancy affect this estimation.
The recommended dietary allowances for protein, defined as Population Reference Intake (PRI), differ significantly throughout pregnancy and breastfeeding. Depending on the stage of pregnancy you’re in, protein intake should be increased by:
Protein powders come in a number of different forms, depending on the protein source (whey, casein, plant-based, etc.) and whether or not they are a complete source of protein. Your doctor may recommend one of these varieties over another, even if it’s different from what you’re used to taking.
Regardless of protein type, pregnant women should avoid any protein powders that are not third-party tested, contain excess added sugars, or have added nutrients such as iron. It's important to not take an excessive amount of certain vitamins or minerals that may already be included in your prenatal vitamin.
Aside from the protein content, you should also examine the nutrition facts to ensure that the product contains a balanced blend of essential nutrients that support both maternal and fetal health. You should look for carbohydrates, proteins, fats, vitamins, minerals, and fiber.
Incorporating protein powder into your regular routine doesn’t have to be complicated or dull! Here are some creative ways you can add protein powder to your diet:
The choice between plant-based and other protein powders during pregnancy is mostly dependent on your dietary preferences. It’s important to note that many plant-based proteins won't contain all the essential amino acids needed to offer a “complete” protein. So, combining ingredients like brown rice protein and pea protein can help achieve this balance.
Taking protein powder during pregnancy can generally be part of a healthy diet. However, it's vital to choose a product that’s free from harmful additives or excessive levels of vitamins and minerals that could be problematic during pregnancy. While consuming protein powder in moderation is typically considered safe, some individuals might temporarily experience digestive discomfort or other minor issues if using protein powders in large quantities. The key is selecting a protein powder specifically suited to pregnancy and any personal dietary preferences – and following the recommended serving sizes.
Morning sickness and fatigue are common ailments during pregnancy, especially during the first trimester. Protein shakes may have the ability to provide some relief in these areas. For those struggling with morning sickness, it may be easier to drink a protein shake instead of eating solid food. Blending protein powder with soothing ingredients like bananas or ginger can create a nourishing drink that provides essential nutrients without aggravating morning sickness.
Fatigue can be supported with protein shakes if the fatigue is due to insufficient protein intake. Studies have shown that lower protein intake is associated with fatigue. Many people in their second and third trimesters don't consume enough protein to meet their increased requirements.
As long as the ingredients in the protein powder are safe, you can certainly take protein powder while breastfeeding.
Absolutely! Before adding protein powder, or any supplement for that matter, you should always inform your healthcare provider.
Aside from protein powder, it’s still possible to meet your protein requirements solely from food. There are plenty of nutritious sources that can be incorporated into your diet:
Speaking with your doctor or a registered dietitian can help you decide whether or not protein powder is right for you during your pregnancy. While the best source of protein comes from a balanced diet, powders can be an amazing way to ensure that both you and your baby are getting the nutrients you need for a safe and healthy pregnancy.