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Protein in Pregnancy: What you need to know

Protein in pregnancy

Why Protein in Pregnancy is Important

Almost all pregnant women appreciate how important it is to eat a healthy diet during pregnancy.

After all, a healthy mother is far more likely to grow a healthy baby.

But while it’s important to take on a wide range of nutrients during pregnancy, protein is among the most essential.

Proteins are organic compounds which form the building blocks from which your body – and your baby’s body – are built.

During pregnancy, your body will be creating a lot of new tissue, so it’s important that there’s an ample supply of material to work with.

Dietary protein may also have less direct benefits for pregnant women. It will prevent excessive weight gain by helping you feel fuller (and thereby less inclined to guzzle carbs) and promote the growth of muscle rather than fat.

It will also help to keep your blood sugar levels stable, and to stave off conditions like diabetes.

How Much Protein Should I Be Consuming During Pregnancy?

Protein in pregnancy

Having established that protein is especially useful during pregnancy, we’re still left with the question of exactly how much protein you should be eating.

Too little and your body won’t have the raw materials to perform the tasks we’ve mentioned. Too much and you’ll bring about some undesirable side-effects – which will impact not only your health, but that of your baby, too.

The general consensus among medical professionals is that pregnant women should get around 50g-70g of protein per day[1]. This is compared to around forty-five in women who aren’t pregnant. If you’d like more specific guidelines, there are online tools available which calculate your requirements more precisely.

Of course, this daily requirement is not quite as strict as that – sometimes you’ll eat slightly more than seventy grams, and sometimes less. What’s important is the average over longer periods of time.

The good news is that, at least in the west, most of us eat plenty of protein – so the shortfall is not quite as severe as it might be. It’s worth also considering that your body can only absorb so much protein at any one time – this means it may be worth eating smaller amounts more often, rather than gorging on roast chicken every evening and then fasting throughout the day.

These quantities vary depending on how advanced the pregnancy is. During the first trimester, when your baby is still very small, it will need less protein in order to sustain itself.

As time goes on and your baby develops, it will need more raw materials to build new cells – this is especially important during the third trimester, which is crucial for the development of the baby’s brain.

Not only that, but your body will be developing too – your breasts and other organs will get bigger, and that extra tissue has got to be built from something!

Can Protein Help Reduce Nausea During Pregnancy?

Protein in pregnancy morning sickness

One of the more unpleasant things about pregnancy is that it involves a lot of vomiting. Now, morning sickness is not a particularly well-understood condition, and there is a lot of uncertainty surrounding its causes and effects.

It effects around four out of every five pregnant women, and is most common during the first trimester. Beyond that, however, our knowledge of the condition and its causes is a little sketchy.

Perhaps this is because the condition varies tremendously in frequency and severity between women. Some suffer terribly from it; others do not. Moreover, many women report that their symptoms change dramatically between pregnancies!

Despite this, many pregnant women report that eating protein has helped to alleviate the symptoms of their morning sickness. There is a well-documented link between dietary ginger and vitamin B6 and a reduction in these unpleasant symptoms[2] – and both of these substances are linked with an improved rate of protein-absorption.

Therefore, while the evidence of protein’s role in alleviating morning sickness is inconclusive, it’s certainly worth a try – it may be that eating more protein will alleviate your symptoms.

Best Sources of Protein during Pregnancy

Thus far, we’ve not assumed any dietary limitations, but in the real world, things are more complicated than that.

Some women may suffer from allergies, while others might avoid certain foodstuffs, like animal products.

Fortunately, there exist many different sources of dietary protein. Contrary to popular belief in carnivorous circles, it’s possible to get plenty of protein in your diet without piling meat and fish onto your plate.

Let’s take a look at some of the best sources of protein, starting with the most obvious.

1. Meat

Perhaps the most obvious source of protein is meat.

Meat can deliver protein to your body very efficiently, since the components found in it are similar to those found in our own bodies.

In other words, chickens, cows, pigs and sheep are made from much the same stuff that we are, and so it’s easy for the body to use these building blocks to help build and maintain your body, and that of your baby.

If you like your steak rare, however, then you may be out of luck – raw meat can cause toxoplasmosis, an infection which can damage your baby.

So make sure you cook everything thoroughly and wash everything the raw meat touched afterwards.

While infections are rare, it’s always worth erring on the side of caution – you can indulge yourself with that blue fillet steak after the baby has been safely delivered!

There are some varieties of meat which pregnant women should avoid altogether, as they contain other substances which are potentially harmful.

These include liver, which contains high concentrations of pre-formed vitamin A. Eating too much of this has been linked to liver toxicity and birth defects.

You might also avoid eating large quantities of tuna, since it contains mercury which can be harmful if consumed in large quantities.

2. Cheeses

Similarly, while cheese in general is a great source of protein, soft cheeses are best avoided, as they might contain listeria.

Listeria is a harmful bacteria, which causes a dangerous infection called listeriosis. Pregnancy causes a hormonal changes in the body which affect your immune system, making it more difficult to combat these sorts of infections.

These cheeses include brie and camembert, as well as blue cheese like gorgonzola and Roquefort.

Harder cheese, however – like cheddar and parmesan – contain much less moisture, and are therefore far less hospitable to listeria.

3. Legumes

Protein is found abundantly in beans and pulses. If you’re partial to Mexican food, you’ll likely want to familiarise yourself with the bean section at your local supermarket.

Beans come in an enormous variety of flavours – from black beans to kidney beans to butter beans – and each can help to bulk up a meal.

4. Grains

Whilst we might mentally file them into the ‘carb’ section of our mental food catalogue, most grains actually contain small amounts of protein.

Quinoa stands out among grains in this respect; it contains all nine essential amino acids, and a single serving can contain more than eight grams of protein.

Quinoa is very adaptable – it can be complemented by whatever ingredients you might happen to have lying around in the cupboard.

Learn to cook with it, and you’ll easily be able to get the protein you need.

5. Soy

Soy beans are worth special consideration for vegetarians. They’re loaded with protein and lots of other good stuff, including fibre, omega-3 acids, and essential minerals like iron, calcium and zinc.

For this reason, soy is extremely popular among vegans and those otherwise meat-averse.

Soy has recently received some negative press where pregnancy is concerned. The source of this disquiet is an acid contained in the plant called phytic acid.

This is a substance which binds to minerals, and thereby blocks the body’s uptake of certain key nutrients – like the iron, calcium and zinc we’ve just mentioned.

Studies in animals have linked it to a number of problems for babies. This might include early puberty and fertility problems in girls, and birth defects in boys.

That said, these findings have yet to be replicated in humans, but it's worth erring on the side of caution.

If you’re going to eat soy, it’s best to do it in small amounts – and to get it only from natural, whole sources.

6. Whey Protein

Whey protein is highly bioavailable, so whey protein supplements are a hugely popular means of adding a little extra protein into your diet.

That said, not all whey products are created equal – some contain added vitamins and minerals, which may be harmful to pregnant women if taken in excessive quantities.

If you’re taking supplements, you’ll want to check the label carefully before proceeding. After all, it’s best to know exactly what you’re putting into your body – and this goes doubly so when you’re putting it into someone else’s body, too!

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