Mar 23, 2023 • 9 min read

Protein During Pregnancy: How Much You Need & High Protein Foods

Medically Reviewed by Kim Langdon, MD on 3/23/2023
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Adequate protein consumption is essential for everyone, especially pregnant women. Aiming to have a protein-rich diet during pregnancy will help ensure both the mother and baby are getting all the energy and nutrients they need to thrive and grow.

Generally speaking, during pregnancy you should aim to consume roughly 70 to 100 grams of protein a day. Of course, the amount you personally need will vary based on your weight, stage of pregnancy, and other factors.

While 70 to 100 grams of protein may seem like a lot, there are plenty of great food choices that will help you to reach that goal.

Whether you are a meat eater through and through or someone who enjoys a vegetarian-based diet, there is no shortage of high-protein foods to choose from throughout pregnancy.

This guide will go over how much protein you need during pregnancy, high-protein foods that are safe to eat while pregnant, and everything else you need to know.

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Why is protein important during pregnancy?

Consuming enough protein during pregnancy is essential to your and your baby’s growth. Protein can help during pregnancy by:

  • Supporting overall growth. Protein is a multifaceted macronutrient that helps to support fetal growth. This means that consuming enough protein every day is essential to the growth of the fetus’ vital organs and tissues. In addition to supporting a growing baby, getting enough protein during pregnancy will also aid in breast and uterine tissue growth for the pregnant woman.
  • Improving blood flow. As the body changes and adapts during pregnancy, there is an increased supply of blood within the body. Protein consumption helps to ensure blood flow is being transported properly within the woman’s body, and most importantly to the baby.
  • Increasing collagen production. High-protein foods are known to increase collagen production within the body which is essential for a successful pregnancy. This is because they contain amino acids that collagen is comprised of, such as glycine and proline.
  • Reducing swelling. Edema is a condition that occurs during pregnancy in which the extra fluid in the body can cause swelling, especially in the feet and ankles. Eating protein-rich foods can reduce swelling by thickening the blood and therefore reducing leakage from the blood vessels into the tissue.
  • Aiding healthy weight gain. Gaining weight over the span of nine months is a very common (and important) part of pregnancy. Eating a protein-rich diet helps to ensure the weight you are putting on comes from nutrient-dense and impactful foods.

How much protein is needed during pregnancy?

So how much protein is deemed necessary to consume on a daily basis during pregnancy? 

According to the American Pregnancy Association, women should aim to consume roughly 75 to 100 grams of protein a day

This is a general recommendation, however, and it can vary depending on age, weight, physical activity levels, overall health, and stage of pregnancy.

While protein requirements during the first trimester don’t change much from pre-pregnancy, they increase considerably during the second and third trimesters.

When it comes to getting enough protein during pregnancy, it is important not to overdo it. Some protein-rich foods can be more calorie dense, which can lead to gaining more weight than what is necessary or safe for a mother and her baby. 

Aiming to consume a well-balanced diet of protein, healthy fats, and complex carbs is always the best choice.

It may be a good idea to work with a prenatal nutritionist who can help you make sure you’re eating enough protein and generally eating well during pregnancy.

Here at Zaya Care, we can match you with a dietitian that accepts your insurance and preferred visit type.

High-protein food ideas that are safe to eat while pregnant

In general, most protein-rich foods are safe to eat throughout the duration of your pregnancy. There is a wide range of options including meat, dairy, legumes, and much much more. 

Not all protein is created equal so to speak, and there are some sources you should avoid while pregnant, such as fish that is high in mercury, undercooked eggs, and deli/lunch meats. With that in mind, here are some of the safe options to reach for during pregnancy.

  • Chicken (26 g per 3 oz). Chicken is a great protein source during pregnancy as it contains nearly a third of the recommended daily protein requirement per serving. Not only is it easily accessible for most, but it is also very versatile so you can have it often in a variety of ways.
  • Salmon (17 g per 3 oz). Salmon is another great source of animal protein. It is packed with nearly 20 grams per serving and is also loaded with omega-3 fatty acids which play an important role in brain development during pregnancy.
  • Lean Beef (22 g per 3 oz). Choosing a lean protein over one that is extra fatty is the wise choice to make while pregnant. Lean ground beef is a great choice not only for the high protein content per serving but also because it can be a source of iron for the mom and growing baby. Iron helps to produce hemoglobin, which is a necessity when it comes to transporting oxygen within the body, and to the fetus and placenta.
  • Cottage Cheese (28 g per 1 cup). Protein doesn’t always have to come from meat, which makes cottage cheese a protein-packed option that is often more accessible than meats. Cottage cheese is also a great source of calcium, which is particularly beneficial for the skeletal health of pregnant women.
  • Lentils (9 g per 0.5 cup). Most protein sources seem to have other health benefits as well, and lentils are no exception to that. Lentils are protein-rich, loaded with folic acid (an essential vitamin needed during pregnancy), fibrous, cost-effective, and versatile. 
  • Peanut Butter (7 g per 2 tbsp). Peanut butter and other nut butters are a convenient way to add a boost of protein to many different meals and snacks throughout the day. In order to get the most nutrients out of this creamy option, be sure to pick varieties that don’t have added sugars or oils.
  • Tofu (7 g per 3 oz). Tofu is a great protein option not only for vegetarians and vegans but also for everyday meat-eaters. This soy-based alternative will boost the protein content of any savory meal, and it comes with added nutrients such as iron, calcium, and zinc.
  • Plain Greek Yogurt (10 g per 1 cup). While Greek yogurt has less protein per serving than cottage cheese, it has more protein than regular yogurt, making it another excellent source of protein to choose from. Plain Greek yogurt has a very low sugar content which is perfect for pregnant women.

>> Learn more: Best foods to eat during pregnancy

Are protein powders safe during pregnancy?

Reaching the goal of consuming 70+ grams of protein per day might seem impossible, leaving pregnant women wondering if they should be adding in protein powders or other protein supplements to their diets. 

While this might seem like an easy solution, it might be best to pack the protein powder away until after giving birth. 

The first thing to be wary of is the possibility of consuming too many vitamins and minerals. The vast majority of pregnant women take prenatal vitamins to help ensure they are consuming the essential micronutrients. Many protein powders also have added vitamins and minerals, which could make it hard to keep track of how much you are taking in every day. 

While it is more common to have micronutrient deficiencies during pregnancy, adding protein powders can add a risk of consuming too much.

Protein powders are considered to be dietary supplements, which means they are not regulated by the FDA. You always want to assume you can trust the labels on the products you purchase, but it might not be worth having to second guess whether the protein powder you might reach for is really safe for you and your growing fetus. 

Protein powders can be safe during pregnancy if you find an option with minimal additives from a reputable company, but if you want to play it safe, you should rely on whole, non-processed foods for your protein.

>> Find a prenatal nutritionist that accepts your insurance

Getting enough protein on a vegetarian or vegan diet while pregnant

Whether you have been a vegetarian or vegan for years or just started one of the diets, it is possible to get enough protein while pregnant without eating animal-based products.

While it may take a little more planning compared to that required by the average carnivore, it’s still very much possible.

There are loads of plant-based proteins that are suitable for vegetarians and vegans throughout their pregnancies. In order to reach that goal of 70+ grams a day, pregnant women should be consuming a plant-based protein source with each meal and snack.

Some examples of plant-based proteins that are generally safe to eat during pregnancy include: 

  • Peas
  • Chickpeas
  • Quinoa
  • Black or kidney beans
  • Soy milk
  • Eggs (for some vegetarians)
  • Hemp seeds
  • Edamame
  • Soy-based meat alternatives

Just like non-vegetarians, vegetarians and vegans need to be mindful of the nutrients they are getting during pregnancy and supplementing with the advice of a doctor or prenatal nutritionist, as needed. 

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How a prenatal nutritionist can help you during pregnancy

Whether it is your first, second, or tenth time carrying a baby, it can be very difficult to navigate the many different facets of pregnancy. 

Making sure you are hitting your nutrition goals might be the trickiest of them all. 

A prenatal nutritionist is a healthcare provider who has all the knowledge needed to help ensure you and your baby are healthy and nourished over the span of those long nine months. 

Instead of turning to Dr. Google or overthinking different choices when it comes to diet, working with a prenatal nutritionist will provide you with accurate and safe information. 

If you are worried that you are not meeting your protein goals or are not eating enough during pregnancy otherwise, a prenatal nutritionist will work with you and help customize a plan made specifically for you. They will also work to address any other possibly-diet-related issues you may be experiencing such as poor sleep or a lack of energy.

Here at Zaya Care, we can match you with a prenatal nutritionist who can help make sure you are not only consuming enough protein during pregnancy but that you and your growing baby are fueled and thriving, so you can enjoy your pregnancy as much as possible.

Ask the Expert: Natasha Eziquiel-Shriro, RDN

Q: What are some easy ways to incorporate more protein into diets during pregnancy?

Traditional nutrition recommendations during pregnancy put a lot of emphasis on carbohydrates, which give the body energy, but the specifics on protein needs are limited and actually based on non-pregnant women!

It’s important to get enough protein throughout pregnancy, to help with morning sickness, balance the diet to prevent gestational diabetes, and provide enough of the building blocks for the baby’s growth along with the mother’s stamina and strength.

Protein foods include animal foods like meat, seafood, poultry, egg, and milk, along with plant foods like beans, nuts, seeds, soy products, and whole grains.

Using protein at meals and snacks is a great way to make sure you’re getting enough in your day. You can easily boost protein by:

  • Keep snacks on hand, like low-sugar protein bars, string cheese, mixed nuts, or jerky 
  • Add peanut butter, yogurt, or protein powder to a smoothie
  • Enjoy a cup of milk or soy milk in the evening
  • Add a handful of cooked beans to a soup or salad
  • Make hard-boiled eggs a few times per week for a quick bite
  • Cozy up with a small plate of sliced fruit with your favorite nut butter 
  • Turn Greek yogurt into a dip for sliced veggies or chips
  • Never forget the simplicity of a supermarket rotisserie chicken!

Q: How can women on vegetarian or vegan diets get enough protein during pregnancy?

All the hype about going plant-based seems to overlook that it takes a lot of work to have a balanced diet as a vegan or vegetarian. This eating pattern can be too low in calories for pregnancy, come up short on the essential amino acids that come from protein foods, lack omega-3 fatty acids, and might not provide enough vitamins choline and B-12, or minerals iron, zinc, and calcium.

Not to worry—getting everything you need is possible. For example, meeting protein goals on a plant-based diet can actually be easy (and delicious!)

Vegan protein choices include beans, lentils, soy products, nuts and nut butters, and whole grains like brown rice or barley. Eggs, yogurt, cheese, and milk are options for vegetarians. It really comes down to eating a variety of these foods each day.

Breakfast could be oatmeal made with soy milk and topped with hemp seeds or a peanut butter and banana smoothie bowl. Lunch, a whole wheat pita with chickpea hummus, sesame seed tahini, and shredded vegetables or a simple egg salad sandwich. For dinner, black bean and avocado tacos, a hearty lentil soup, or a tofu stir-fry. Don’t forget that protein-rich snacks are options too—like Greek yogurt with granola or a handful of mixed nuts and dried fruit.

If you’re unsure if your protein needs are being met, a prenatal nutritionist can review your current eating pattern and help you fill in the gaps as needed.

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