For adults, protein is essential to keep the body going, as it is needed for different body functions.
Protein, composed of one or more long chains of amino acids, is an important component of every cell in your body. It helps build and repair tissue; make enzymes and hormones; and build bones, muscles, cartilage, skin and even blood.
When you are pregnant, adequate dietary protein is crucial to ensure you have a healthy baby. The amino acids in protein help build everything from your baby’s muscles to its brain.
Protein is also needed to produce the right amount of blood cells and aids the body in producing iron, an important nutrient that helps you maintain a healthy immune system. Women often need more iron than usual when they are pregnant.
Protein also helps the breast and uterine tissue grow during pregnancy.
On the other hand, low protein intake during pregnancy can lead to a number of health problems in both the mother as well as the developing baby.
First of all, it can cause weakness and increased fatigue in the expecting mother.
For the developing baby, a low-protein diet can lead to poor muscle and joint development, poor bone development, muscle or bone deformities, miscarriage, brain damage and a high risk of birth defects.
In fact, if there’s lack of protein, your baby growing inside your womb will begin to break down its own tissues in order to get building blocks for the body, preventing both of you from staying healthy.
Research on the Importance of Protein during Pregnancy
Several studies have shed light on the importance of protein during pregnancy.
For instance, a 2013 study published in the Journal of Health, Population and Nutrition reports that the rate of growth was highly influenced by maternal milk and protein intake. These findings suggest that contribution of common nutrients or other nutritional factors present in milk and protein promote the growth of the fetus (1).
In a 2016 study published in Advances in Nutrition, researchers using swine as an animal model found that the requirements for several indispensable amino acids increase dramatically during late gestation compared with early gestation.
Additional studies should be conducted during pregnancy to confirm the newly determined protein requirements and to determine the indispensable amino acid requirements during pregnancy in humans (2).
How Much Protein is Needed during Pregnancy?
According to the American Pregnancy Association, pregnant women need 75 to 100 grams of protein per day (3).
This is about 25 grams more than what you would need normally.
However, your protein requirement may be a little less or more depending upon your level of activity as well. If you are very active and engage in regular exercise, you may want to increase your protein intake to 80 to 100 grams each day.
What are Healthy Sources of Protein?
While lean meats, poultry and fish like salmon, halibut, trout, cod and perch are excellent sources of protein, there are some healthier options that you must try.
Some other sources of protein that many pregnant women rely on are beans, tofu, peanuts, wheat germ and whole grains.
Protein shakes and protein bars are also nutritional supplements that may help some women meet their minimum protein requirements.
During pregnancy, you must avoid soft and unpasteurized cheese, fish with a high level of mercury, unpasteurized milk and processed meat, such as deli-style meat.
While these foods are high in protein, they are also prone to developing bacteria, which can lead to several food-borne illnesses. So, it is best to avoid these protein sources throughout pregnancy and during recovery.
Apart from paying attention to your protein intake, you must take your prenatal vitamins and eat a balanced diet.
At the same time, regular exercise, adequate sleep, deep breathing and a low stress level are vitally important during pregnancy.
- Milk and Protein Intake by Pregnant Women Affects Growth of Foetus. Journal of Health, Population and Nutrition. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3905637/. Published December 2013.
- Protein and Amino Acid Requirements during Pregnancy. Advances in Nutrition. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4942872/. Published July 2016.
- Pregnancy Nutrition: Eating Healthy While Pregnant. American Pregnancy Association. http://americanpregnancy.org/pregnancy-health/pregnancy-nutrition/. Published May 10, 2017.