Protein During Pregnancy: How Much?

Protein isn’t just for building muscle. During pregnancy, protein helps support the healthy growth and development of the baby — this means moms require more protein than they might normally be used to eating.

[SEE: 8 High-Protein Breakfasts That Keep You Full.]

How Protein Needs Change Throughout Pregnancy

Protein needs increase throughout pregnancy as body weight increases, with the greatest protein requirements being in the third trimester. Because nutrient needs increase more significantly than calorie needs, dietitian Stephanie McBurnett, nutrition educator for the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine and mom of two young girls, advises that pregnant women should take care to “limit empty calories from highly processed foods and sweets and focus on protein and nutrient-rich foods at every meal.”

According to the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, pregnant women need anywhere from five to seven “ounce-equivalents” of protein foods per day, depending on their size and calorie needs. For pregnant women, this works out to roughly 71 grams of protein per day, compared with 46 grams per day for nonpregnant women. For a 150-pound pregnant adult in the second or third trimester, that would mean aiming for 75 grams of protein a day, or roughly 0.5 grams of protein per pound of body weight.

Breastfeeding adults also have increased protein needs, similar to levels recommended during the latter half of pregnancy.

Moms carrying multiples have even higher protein needs.

“Protein needs are also higher for moms carrying multiples and younger moms (teens) who are still growing, themselves,” says dietitian Judy Simon, owner of Mind Body Nutrition and co-author of “Getting to Baby: A Food First Fertility Plan to Improve your Odds and Shorten Your Time to Pregnancy.”

“The majority of pregnant women I work with are able to meet their protein needs with food,” explains Simon. “As their pregnancy progresses into second and third trimester, they increase their protein intake from plant and animal products with increased intake of total food.”

While it may seem challenging to ensure adequate protein intake during pregnancy, research shows that over 95% of pregnant women in the U.S. eat the recommended amount of protein in the first trimester. However, that number drops to slightly below 88% in the second and third trimesters.

“Often, when protein is inadequate, so are total nutrition needs, which can have negative consequences,” warns Simon.

[See: 7 Top Healthy Protein-Rich Foods.]

Best High-Protein Foods for Pregnancy

According MyPlate, one “ounce-equivalent” of quality protein foods include:

— one ounce of lean meat, poultry or fish

— ¼ cup cooked beans, lentils or chickpeas

— 1 egg

— 1 tablespoon of peanut butter

— ½ ounce of nuts or seeds

— ¼ cup or two ounces tofu

— 1 ounce cooked tempeh

These are going to be the greatest sources of protein in most people’s diets, so it’s important for pregnant and lactating women to include one or more of these in each of their meals and snacks.

Looking to add a protein boost to your meals? Here are some popular sources of protein.

Protein content of healthy high-protein foods

— 3 ounces salmon: 17 grams protein

— 1 cup beans: 14 grams protein

— 2 large eggs: 12 grams protein

— 1 ounce cheese: 9 grams protein

— 2 tablespoons peanut butter: 7 grams protein

— ¼ cup mixed nuts: 6 grams protein

[READ: Protein Rich Snacks to Keep You Satisfied]

Food Safety

For expectant mothers who choose to eat meat, food safety is a top concern. The hormone changes that take place during pregnancy make pregnant women more susceptible to foodborne illnesses, so extra care should be taken to minimize food safety risks. Beef, pork, veal and lamb roasts, steaks and chops should be cooked to an internal temperature of at least 145° F, while ground meats should be cooked to an internal temperature of at least 160° F. All poultry should be cooked to an internal temperature of at least 165° F — a recommendation that stands for all consumers, not just those at risk of foodborne illness.

The USDA also recommends that pregnant individuals avoid hot dogs, luncheon meats, bologna or other deli meats unless reheated until steaming. Additionally, raw and undercooked seafood, such as sushi, is not advised for pregnant women.

Plant-Based Protein Sources

One way to reduce the risk of undercooked meats is to opt for plant-based protein sources, which provide plenty of variety and nutrition for pregnant and lactating women. Beans, peas, lentils, chickpeas, peanut butter, soy foods, nuts and seeds are the most protein-packed options in the plant kingdom.

However, even switching to whole grains can help give pregnant women a little protein boost, as whole grains have roughly 25% more protein than their refined counterparts, in addition to containing more fiber and healthy micronutrients. For a nutrient-dense way to meet protein goals, McBurnett recommends “eating various plant-based foods, including beans, lentils, peas, nuts, seeds, quinoa, tempeh, tofu, whole grains and vegetables.”

Safe Seafood

Though raw and undercooked seafood is not advised, fully cooked seafood is another underutilized protein source that pregnant women can turn to. The Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommend that pregnant or breastfeeding individuals should not exceed 12 ounces per week of a variety of seafood from choices that are lower in methylmercury. And yet, many expectant mothers are falling short of the amount of seafood needed to confer neurodevelopment benefits.

Cultural food traditions, such as the Mediterranean diet, offer time-tested options for how to include seafood and plant-based proteins into nutritious and delicious meals. Following a Mediterranean diet during pregnancy has also been linked with improved neurodevelopment in children and a reduced risk of pregnancy complications like preeclampsia, according to research.

Is Protein Powder Safe During Pregnancy?

Some protein powders can be safe during pregnancy, but consumers need to shop with a discerning eye.

Protein powder and shake supplements need to be third party independently tested for safety,” recommends Simon, noting that “heavy metals have been found in some protein powders in the past.”

Whey protein is a protein from cow’s milk and is commonly available as a protein supplement.

“Whey protein is safe during pregnancy as long as mom does not have a milk allergy,” says Simon, reminding moms that “the FDA does not test supplements and puts the responsibility of safety on the manufacturer.”

Because protein powders are not regulated by FDA, it’s not always possible to be certain you’re getting what the label says you are. Some popular brands of protein powders also contain substantial amounts of added sugars or artificial sweeteners. For many expectant mothers, the risk of consuming contaminants isn’t worth it if they can easily meet their protein needs through food.

Further, a 2023 study of 6,897 women found that consuming protein powders in early pregnancy was linked with an increased risk of gestational diabetes. Individuals concerned about gestational diabetes or other nutrition questions should connect with their dietitian and healthcare team to find an eating plan that works for their specific needs.

For this reason, many dietitians recommend trying to use food sources first to meet a pregnant mom’s needs. McBurnett advises that “it is better to try to get your protein and nutrient needs through real food and a prenatal vitamin,” but notes that protein powders can be helpful in certain nutrition situations.

“If a woman is nauseous and unable to eat for multiple days, a smoothie with some protein powder can be helpful to reach protein and nutrient goals,” she says.

When to Seek Nutrition Support During Pregnancy

Finally, Simon emphasizes the importance of nutrition education for all pregnant and lactating women. For anyone dealing with difficult pregnancy symptoms, know that nutrition care professionals are out there to support moms throughout every step of the way.

“I find some moms do struggle with getting adequate protein if they are suffering from nausea, vomiting, food aversions or poor appetite at any time in their pregnancy and are challenged to not only meet their protein needs, but all their nutrient needs,” says Simon. “If they are struggling to meet their needs, I would recommend working with a health care provider such as a registered dietitian nutritionist.”

By stocking your pantry with your favorite high protein foods and allowing your health care team to help troubleshoot any changes to your appetite, getting enough protein to stay nourished while pregnant or breast feeding can be easy and delicious.

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