Everything changes during pregnancy: your hair, your appetite, and (most noticeably) your waistline. A tiny human is growing inside you and YOU are fueling their growth. So aside from the obvious changes during pregnancy, you are also changing your caloric intake: both in amount and type. Adding in prenatal vitamins and 200 extra calories (in the first trimester)1 may not seem challenging, however it is important to consider the types of calories you are consuming, particularly in how you distribute your fats, carbohydrates, and proteins.
During pregnancy, and later during lactation, protein consumption is critical for baby’s health. Proteins are the building blocks of our bodies, and consuming the right amount ensures not only healthy development of babies, but also for the production of breast milk post-partum.2 What is the right amount? Some sources say anywhere between 10-35% of your caloric intake should be protein, others have found a “sweet spot” around 15-18%, and still others suggest adding an additional 25 grams daily to your diet.2,3 Your OB, primary care provider, or dietician can give you more specific recommendations for your particular needs.
The focus of this article will be on where that protein comes from, and how you can make informed decisions when choosing your protein.
Protein Powders: An Overview
Protein powders are a great way to get a lot of protein quickly and easily. Just add a scoop with water, milk, or non-dairy substitute, shake, and drink. Instant protein for your workout recovery or dietary supplementation. These are the two most common uses for protein powder: to facilitate workout recovery, or to supplement a diet that is low in protein (vegetarian, vegan, etc.). There are three major types of protein powders:4
- Protein Concentrates: these are produced from extracting protein from a whole food source. They typically contain 60-80% protein, with the remaining 20-40% being carbohydrates and fats.
- Protein Isolates: these also extract protein from whole foods and take an extra step of filtering out more of the carbohydrates and fats. These types typically are 90-95% protein.
- Protein Hydrolysates: proteins are extracted from whole foods using heat and acids or enzymes. Hydrolysate proteins have gone through extra heating to break down the protein into its building blocks (amino acids). These are absorbed more quickly in the body.
Best Sources of Protein during Pregnancy
On top of that, your protein can come from a number of sources. I have listed the most popular below:4
- Whey Protein: sourced from milk and is a complete protein (meaning it contains all 9 essential amino acids). If you have a sensitivity to lactose, whey isolates may work better for you than concentrates, as more of the lactose sugar is filtered out. You might also consider a protein of a different source.
- Pea Protein: sourced from yellow split peas. This source is high in fiber and branched chain amino acids (BCAAs—they digest more quickly), however it is not considered a complete protein because it has 8 out of the 9 essential amino acids.
- Hemp Protein: plant-based protein that is high in omega-3 fatty acids and has a reputation of being easily digestible. This protein is also incomplete.
- Soy Protein:5 sourced from soy beans, and contains some important vitamins that are often lacking in vegan and vegetarian diets (B12, D, etc.). This protein is also incomplete.
- There are several other protein powder sources, such as egg, brown rice, mixed plant proteins, and casein (which is also from milk, it just digests more slowly). Each has its own benefits and shortcomings, so it is important to do your research and read the ingredients of protein powders as you shop.
Protein During Pregnancy
We discussed a little bit about the requirements for how much protein you may require during pregnancy, but let’s talk about where that protein comes from. In the end of the day, getting protein from whole foods is the “gold standard” of protein consumption. Animal sources of protein such as meat, fish, eggs, and dairy products are complete proteins, and contain the nine essential amino acids that are needed to build our body structures. Most of these sources also contain other important nutrients, like iron and vitamin B12. Plant-based sources of protein such as beans and hemp, while not complete proteins, can provide a majority of the essential amino acids among other important nutrients, like vitamin D and omega-3 fatty acids. See a complete list of whole food protein sources at the end of this article!
There is no “right” protein to consume. Ideally, we would all get a variety of protein sources throughout the day. Most of us can make that happen, however pregnancy—especially on a vegan or vegetarian diet—can make this more of a challenge. This is where protein powders can really come in handy: as a dietary supplementation. Adding one or two protein shakes per day might provide the extra boost in protein that pregnancy calls for and can be a handy replacement for when cravings kick in or if you have an aversion to meat (or other protein sources). Always confer with your OB, PCP, and/or dietician before adding any form of supplementation to your diet.
How I Selected Best Protein Powder While Pregnant
Once you get the green-light from your provider, how do you know what to look for? Hopefully, your provider will have some recommendations, and here are some general guidelines to keep in mind as you are reading labels:
- Ensure that your protein is from a QUALITY source. Low quality proteins, particularly plant-based proteins, tend to have higher levels of heavy metals. Trace amounts are normal, however as the number gets higher, so does the likelihood that they protein powder is low quality.2
- Beware of (certain) sweeteners. Saccharin is not recommended for women who are pregnant or nursing due to its ability to cross the placenta and remain in fetal tissue.2 This could have health repercussions down the road for your child.
- Check for additives! This one is big. A large portion of the protein supplement industry is oriented toward people looking to build muscle mass and you want to be sure that the protein you purchase is oriented toward your health goals. “Muscle building” protein may contain additives such as caffeine or creatine, which are contraindicated for women who are pregnant or breastfeeding.2
- Choose what works for your body. If you are gluten or lactose intolerant, check to make sure that the products you are looking at do not contain those items. If you eat a specific or restricted diet, there are likely protein supplement options to meet those requirements, and your provider may be able to guide you toward what you are looking for. Remember that protein supplementation is optional, and the necessary dietary increase in protein can be met with whole foods.
All in all, protein supplementation is meant to enhance your diet and your baby’s healthy development. Pregnant mothers are expected to increase their protein consumption to facilitate that development, as well as keep themselves functioning as usual, despite having another life inside of them. Protein powders are considered safe for pregnant women to use as long as you have conferred with your provider, and the protein is of good quality and works for your body.
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I do have one final important note: there is one factor that is even more important than protein consumption for pregnancy. Pregnancy weight gain is the greatest predictor of baby’s health known to date. Mothers who gain significant amounts of weight during pregnancy are more likely to have children who are at higher risk for heart disease, obesity, and diabetes. You may be eating for two, but it is not two adults you are feeding. I like to think of it as eating for one and a quarter. In fact, below are the recommendations Medline Plus for calorie increases during pregnancy and expected weight gain:1
- Normal weight healthy mothers should gain 25-35 pounds
- Overweight mothers should gain 10-20 pounds
- Underweight mothers should gain 35-45 pounds
Note: these are general guidelines. Always discuss with your provider what healthy pregnancy weight gain looks like for you.
Calorie Increases by Trimester:
- First trimester: add 200 calories per day
- Second trimester: add another 200 calories per day
- Third trimester: add another 200 calories per day
Notice: over nine months of pregnancy, caloric intake increases by 600 calories total. That’s the equivalent of one additional meal, not the calories for an additional adult person.
Whole Food Protein Sources: