Protein During Pregnancy
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What is it and what does it do?
Protein is an essential nutrient to our health. On a basic level, the body uses it for the growth and repair of tissues. During pregnancy, you will use protein among other things to build your new baby.
The right protein intake will help you manage your appetite and cravings, helping you to ensure a higher general quality of nutrition during pregnancy. The knock-on effect of this will be improved general health for you and your new baby. Higher protein intake and lower carbohydrate intake during pregnancy can improve baby body composition and predisposition. This means that you can actually make it easier for your son or daughter to stay lean and healthy later in life by following a diet slightly higher in protein and lower in carbohydrate while pregnant.
If you follow a healthy diet, you are unlikely to be deficient in protein. That said, there are some other benefits to having slightly higher intakes than normal.
Our hunter-gatherer ancestors typically ate around 35% of their calories from protein. On average, today's intake is lower, around 25% and higher in carbohydrates. Replacing some carbohydrates in your diet with protein has been shown in numerous studies to be beneficial to baby's body composition, blood sugar management, concentration and heart health.
Many people are concerned that high protein diets will lead to kidney damage. This may be the case when someone consumes extremely high intakes of protein, but a slightly higher intake protein is unlikely to cause any problems in healthy people following sensible nutritional patterns.
Many studies show intakes of 4g per kg of body weight per day over extended periods of time (10 years) to be safe. That intake would translate to a 60kg (9 stone) person eating 240g a day of protein for ten years. 240g of protein is around 10 regular chicken breasts every day!
So how much do I need?
The recommended protein intake is around 0.8g per kg of body weight per day. For a 60kg female that's around 50g. This value is easily attainable from a few servings of fish, meat or eggs a day.
Although this value will likely suffice, I would recommend a higher intake for optimal nutrition. A higher intake is required to get the effects mentioned earlier for your baby's future health. It will also help your own health and body composition.
Around 1.1 to 2.2g per kg is more desirable for optimal immune function, blood sugar management, satiety and growth and repair. Meaning that 60g should be 120g per day for most females. This intake will reduce the risk of giving birth to underweight infants, will contribute to better body composition of the mother at full term and, as mentioned above, it could potentially improve your child's ability to stay lean later in life.
A quick side note; protein weight is not the same as food weight. In 100g raw meat there is roughly 22g actual protein. So eating 120g protein is not simply eating 120g of meat or fish. Read food labels to get a better idea of actual protein content of foods. Within a week you'll have a pretty good idea about the foods you normally eat and their protein content.
Which foods are rich in protein?
The very best sources of protein are good quality meats, fish and poultry. Eggs also pack a good protein punch. As a general rule, meat is about 22% protein. So 100g meat provides around 22g protein; however, different meats vary. Some contain a little more protein, some a little less.
Most vegetables will contain negligible amounts of protein.
Grains, although they contain protein, also are full of starch and many anti-nutrients. Therefore you should not emphasise grains as a source of protein.
What if I'm vegetarian?
Many vegetarians struggle to consume optimal amounts of protein. It is far easier to hit your intake requirements as an omnivore.
The biggest problem for vegetarians is that many of the vegetarian sources of proteins are:
- Incomplete (they lack certain amino acids found in complete proteins like meat.)
- High in soy, which can pose health concerns and is a controversial subject, especially for pregnant women
- High in starch, and thus need to be considered as a carbohydrate as well.
The best sources of protein for vegetarians are pulses and lentils. These are naturally occurring foods that are lower in toxicity than grains or soy and also lower in both carbohydrates and GI than grains.
Consume a wide variety of pulses and lentils for the best amino acid profile.
What about dairy?
Dairy really deserves its own entire post. It can be a complicated subject and is actually quite controversial in the nutritional world.The conclusions of the arguments are as follows;
- Buy organic where possible.
- Use full fat, not skimmed dairy products.
- Use unhomogenised milk where possible.
- The younger the cheese the better, make sure it's pasteurised. This is never normally a problem in the UK.
- Limit consumption, don't go overboard.
- Only eat it if you tolerate it very well.
Dairy can contribute to protein intake but should not make up the majority of dietary protein. Also, consumption of high amounts of dairy has other health implications.
A high dairy intake can actually contribute to insulin resistance. This can undo some of the benefits that higher protein intake provides you and your baby. Follow the above guidelines and you should be fine with normal consumption as long as you tolerate it well.