How much protein do you need? Breaking down what's needed during pregnancy.
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Madeline Given is certified holistic nutritionist, author, and mother, born and raised in Southern California. She works alongside women, helping them find the freedom of health in their ever-changing bodies, from preconception through postpartum. Today, Madeline shares why protein is so needed during and after pregnancy.
The content on this page is provided for informational purposes only and reflects the thoughts and opinions of the persons providing the information and not Needed PBC. This information should not be construed in any way as providing medical advice. If you have a health concern, you should contact your own health care practitioner.
What is protein and why do I need it?
Protein is one of the three main macronutrients of life, made up of building blocks called amino acids. They are best known for working to create the structural components of body tissues (muscle, hair, collagen), as well as enzymes, antibodies, and some hormones.
Animal proteins contain all 20 amino acids — these are called “complete” proteins. Plant-based foods only contain some of these amino acids. They are called “incomplete” proteins.
Growth, cell division, and immune function all rely on the proteins we digest after eating protein-rich foods like nuts, seeds, legumes, meats, fish, eggs, dairy, and many whole grains.
Why is it so important in pregnancy?
Think of protein as the very building blocks of human life and maybe you’ll feel more jazzed about all the new cells and tissues you are creating for you and your baby.
It makes sense then that the body’s requirement for protein increases steadily during pregnancy, while specific amino acids become more important than others.
Aside from physical tissue creation and cell division, ensuring that your pregnant body is getting enough protein is wildly beneficial for many other reasons as well.
For one, your body seeks to expand its blood volume about halfway through pregnancy. In fact, normally your blood volume is expected to increase by 50-60% by the end!
The main idea behind high-protein pregnancy diets (such as The Brewer Diet) is that it helps you work with your body synergistically as it seeks to expand this blood volume. This way, you can provide your body with what it needs to make sure your placenta receives adequate blood supply while your own blood pressure remains stable.
Albumin is a specific protein made by your liver that helps to facilitate this blood volume expansion. Albumin is similar to egg white. The only way that the liver can make this albumin is from protein which the mother eats. Eggs and dairy are a big piece of this equation...meaning professionals who promote The Brewer's Diet often recommend 4-6 eggs and 1 quart of milk a day!
In layman’s terms, protein builds your blood as it works to expand more and more as pregnancy progresses. Optimal protein intake can help prevent pregnancy conditions that tend to creep up in the latter half of pregnancies, like pre-eclampsia, gestational diabetes, high blood pressure, swelling, and more.
So what are the protein requirements in pregnancy?
The word ‘requirement’ sounds strict and unforgiving, so let’s rework the question into asking, “What range of protein is optimal for both me and my baby?”⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀
If you were to Google it (but please don’t!), most sites throw out a wide range between 40-70g/day...with some sources recommending that you start to increase halfway through your pregnancy.
But what does the latest research say? Unfortunately, there hasn’t been as much research done concerning actual pregnant humans as you may think. Read more about the gender health research gap here.
However, a somewhat recent study from 2016 concludes,“the average daily protein intakes would be ∼79 grams per day (∼14% of calories) during early gestation (~16 wks) and 108 grams per day (∼17% of calories) during late gestation (~36 wks) for normally nourished women...”
Bottom line: As your pregnancy progresses, your protein needs increase steadily.
Should I maintain my protein intake while breastfeeding?
Ideally, yes. Breastfeeding mamas generally need an extra 450-500 calories per day compared to their pre-pregnancy baseline. So, although your blood volume will return to normal in the weeks and months postpartum, your body still requires a good amount of protein to sustain your recovery and the growth of your baby.
How can I easily achieve my protein goals?
I’ve had many wide-eyed pregnant women come to me with fear in their eyes wondering if the protein requirements they’ve been hearing about are really that high. The next question is always: HOW CAN I POSSIBLY ACHIEVE THAT!?
Firstly, don’t stress. If you’re mindfully eating when you’re hungry, and you’re not on a restricted diet (i.e. vegan), you’re probably getting somewhat close to the optimal range. But you should still be cognizant of what you’re packing into your meals and snacks every day.
I often encourage clients to track their macronutrients for just a few days on an app in order to truly see the range they are naturally eating every day — but only if they don’t have a history of disordered eating and obsessive tracking. This can be helpful to remind yourself what serving sizes of particular foods truly look like, and how much you get in each meal every day.
If you find that you do need to boost your protein intake, one of my favorite ways is to add bone broth to your diet while pregnant breastfeeding. You can add 10-20g of protein to your day just by sipping on a tasty, comforting mug of bone broth as a savory snack. It’s also an easy and nourishing ingredient to add into soups, chilis, sauces, and more. in place of vegetable broth or stock.
If you can’t stomach the taste of plain bone broth, grab some pure collagen peptides (collagen protein powder) and start adding a scoop or two into your morning tea or coffee. It’s virtually tasteless and dissolves in both cold and hot liquids. This is a great protein option for smoothies as well, since you don’t need to worry about masking the flavor. And, to let you in on a little secret, Needed is working on an awesome protein powder for mamas and mamas-to-be launching in the next few months! Stay tuned.
Finally, I recommend that each snack between meals includes some form of protein. This is not only a helpful way to add onto those daily protein gram counts, but it can also help to reduce episodes of high blood sugar, which is a major concern during pregnancy (especially for those with gestational diabetes or a family history of diabetes). If you’re going to eat a tangerine, add an ounce of cheese to your snack. Craving toast? Slather some peanut butter on top. Dried fruit will fill you up longer if you mix roasted nuts into it. And, keep a bowl of hard-boiled eggs in your refrigerator for an easy 6 grams of protein on the go.
Looking for more easy protein-packed recipes? Try Needed’s blueberry almond protein smoothie, or chocolate-covered strawberry smoothie, both low sugar, high protein, Omega-3 rich ways to start your day.
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