Integrative OB/GYN: Eat More Protein for a Healthy Pregnancy
It’s widely assumed that protein intake during pregnancy in Western countries is very adequate–and even too high. This could be why it wasn’t until 2015 that the first-ever study was completed to estimate protein needs specifically for pregnant women.
What did it find? That current protein recommendations in pregnancy were too low, and that low protein intake during pregnancy can increase your child’s risk of disease later in life.
Optimal protein intake may also make pregnancy more comfortable. Research shows it can decrease side effects like swelling and fluid retention, in addition to being essential for brain and tissue development for baby, nutrient intake, and collagen production.
So how much protein do you actually need during pregnancy, and where are the best places to get it? An integrative OB/GYN can help you get the optimal nutrition you need so you and baby have the healthiest, most comfortable pregnancy yet.
Protein in Pregnancy
Protein is broken down into building blocks called amino acids that you need to build new cells, and as you can imagine, there are a lot of new cells being created during pregnancy.
Protein is essential for the healthy growth of all baby’s tissues and organs, but especially the brain. It also helps mom build breast and uterine tissue to support her growing baby.
Protein helps build DNA, and special cells that make up baby’s immune system. Protein also helps build hormones and enzymes that send important signals throughout the body that support that health of your thyroid, muscles, and uterus.
Your protein needs increase during each trimester of pregnancy, and several recent studies suggest that current recommendations (a minimum of 60 grams per day) fall drastically short of what mom and baby really need to thrive.
Benefits of Adequate Protein in Pregnancy
It’s difficult to overstate the benefits of optimal protein intake for both mom and baby, but they include:
More vitamins and minerals: Protein-rich foods are naturally high in several nutrients required in higher amounts during pregnancy (like vitamin B12, choline, zinc, and iron). Meeting your protein needs means you’re also likely to meet vitamin and mineral needs from food as well.
Prenatal spotlight: Metagenics PlusOne
Reduces swelling/fluid retention: Low protein (or albumin) levels in your blood can cause lower blood osmolality (a measure of your blood’s thickness). This lower osmolality results in fluids “leaking” out of blood vessels into surrounding tissues, which is known as edema. In one study done in 2020, low plasma protein and albumin were associated with edema in the 2nd and 3rd trimesters (1).
Supports collagen production: Literally the “glue” that holds your connective tissue together, collagen is an important part of your growing uterus and other tissues.
Promotes healthy weight gain: Protein is the most satiating macronutrient, which means it’s filling, prevents cravings, and overeating. And it supports a healthy glycemic response, which is key for managing blood sugar and weight gain during pregnancy.
Want the best prenatal support? Work with an integrative OB/GYN at CentreSpringMD for compassionate and knowledgeable care.
Protein Intake & Pregnancy Weight Gain
There are various effective and valid approaches to weight gain during pregnancy. While this article won’t cover weight gain basics like what to expect and healthy ranges, it will explain how protein can help you gain the right amount of weight for your body and growing baby. An integrative ob/gyn will help you determine which foods and lifestyle habits best support healthy weight gain for your individual pregnancy.
When it comes to food, the three things that help your body gain the right amount of weight for you and your baby are:
- Adequate amounts of protein. This keeps you feeling satisfied, provides micro- and macronutrients, plus it can keep cravings at bay and prevent overeating.
- Low-glycemic carbohydrates. This keeps blood sugar levels from swinging wildly in either direction, and studies show that a low glycemic diet significantly lessens high pregnancy weight gain.
- Mindful eating. Plan your meals around nutrient-dense, whole foods as much as possible. Listen to hunger and fullness cues, have healthy snacks readily available, and allow your body grace as it changes to meet the needs of you and your growing baby.
Can Protein Foods Decrease Your Risk for Preeclampsia?
Throughout pregnancy, your body is building more blood, vessels, and various tissues to help support you and your growing baby.
Protein-rich foods supply the building blocks to help your body meet these increased demands, and decrease some of the risk factors for developing preeclampsia, like hypertension and high blood sugar. An integrative ob/gyn can help you manage risk factors for preeclampsia through diet and lifestyle interventions.
One amino acid, called glycine, can be especially helpful for supporting healthy blood pressure, and needs increase during pregnancy. Glycine produces elastin, a structural protein that helps your blood vessels expand and contract.
The best sources of glycine are the connective tissues, skin, and bones of slow cooked animal foods, like bone broth, pot roast or stew, chicken with the skin, and collagen or gelatin powder.
How Much Protein Do You Need in Each Trimester?
According to a high-quality, recent study, optimal protein intake for a woman of an average weight in her 3rd trimester is at least 100 grams, or above, depending on your activity and weight.
This study found that optimal protein intake was 1.22 g/kg in early pregnancy (before 20 weeks), and 1.52 g/kg in late pregnancy (after 20 weeks) (2).
Does this mean pregnant moms need to start tracking their protein intake? And if current guidelines are too low, how come most moms and babies are healthy?
Coincidentally, actual average protein intake from healthy pregnant women tends to fall roughly within the above guidelines, despite “recommendations” (3). In the U.S. about 88 percent of pregnant women consumed more than 85 grams of protein per day, on average (4).
This puts a 150-lb woman on target in early pregnancy (optimal intake at 83 grams), and about 20 grams below optimal protein intake in her third trimester (optimal intake at 103 grams).
This means that assuming you have access to enough food, and listen to your body, you’re more likely to consume the protein your body needs with minor adjustments in the later weeks of pregnancy.
When You Don’t Eat Enough Protein
If you’re regularly not meeting your protein needs, you may feel fatigued, have trouble sleeping, gain too little or too much weight, get sick more often. An integrative ob/gyn can help you track symptoms and monitor nutrient status during pregnancy.
Inadequate protein during pregnancy may also increase your child’s risk later for developing diabetes, heart disease, obesity, or high blood pressure later in life (5). Inadequate protein is also associated with low birth weights (6).
Those who are at risk of not getting enough protein during pregnancy are those following a plant-based diet, like vegan or vegetarian, or those who don’t have access to adequate food.
What’s the best prenatal nutrition for you and baby? Make the switch to an integrative ob/gyn to find out.
How to Increase Protein Foods in Pregnancy
Strive to include a variety of protein-rich foods in your diet. This ensures you get a good balance of nutrients and amino acids. For example, fish and seafood are the highest sources of omega-3s, red meat contains high amounts of iron, while dairy products contain almost none.
Sources of protein:
- Beef, pork, lamb, or other game meats (from naturally-raised animals, if possible)
- Chicken and poultry
- Fish and seafood (including cooked bivals like oysters or mussels)
- Organ meats (if available from naturally-raised animals)
- Cheese and other dairy (if tolerated well)
- Yogurt (Greek yogurt is low in carbs and high in protein)
- Nuts, seeds, and nut butters
- Legumes, beans, and lentils (an incomplete protein and also a source of carbohydrates)
Vegan Diets & Pregnancy
Many of the nutrients commonly lacking in prenatal diets (such as choline, vitamin B12, DHA, and iron) are found naturally in the highest amounts in animal products. Meeting vitamin and mineral needs via exclusively plant-based foods is difficult, if not impossible, without supplementation during pregnancy.
One study notes that “pregnant women were more likely to meet the trimester-specific protein RDA as their percent protein intake from animal sources increased.” For women in the U.S. from 2003 to 2012, more than ⅔ of protein intake was from animal foods.
Integrative Medicine and OB/GYN
Why should you choose an integrative obstetrician? He or she will treat you and your growing baby as more than just the sum of your parts. An integrative doctor will provide you not only with conventional methods to have a healthy pregnancy, but with functional solutions involving diet, movement, and holistic support that address other areas of your body–and your life.
Integrative obstetricians will give you and your baby the healthiest, happiest start to life and make sure you’re fully supported at every step of your pregnancy journey.