Pregnancy is a time of many mixed emotions. You're excited about welcoming a new family member into the world, but you're also nervous and may have many questions, like "Which types of nutrients do I need?" and "Can I drink protein shakes while pregnant?"
It's normal to have these conflicting emotions and questions, but the good news is that there are many safe protein supplements for pregnancy. Of course, it's always best to talk to your health care provider before taking any supplements, including protein shakes.
Pregnant women can safely drink high-quality protein shakes in moderation during pregnancy. It may even be beneficial to help meet a woman's increased protein needs during pregnancy. However, it's important to get protein from a variety of foods and not rely solely on protein shakes. Talk to your health care provider before beginning any type of supplementation.
Protein's Role During Pregnancy
A November 2013 report in Food and Nutrition Research describes a mother's diet as one of the most important factors in the healthy growth and development of a fetus. A pregnant woman has increased needs for several nutrients, including folic acid and iron, but protein may be especially important for delivering a baby at a healthy birth weight.
When your baby is developing, your body uses the amino acids from the protein you eat to create proteins in the body, like keratin and collagen, that are important for healthy bones, skin, joints, tendons and ligaments.
Dietary protein is also used to create functional proteins, such as enzymes, hormones and transport proteins, that work together to promote proper development and provide the developing fetus with the nutrients it needs to grow.
If you don't get enough protein in your diet, the developing fetus won't have access to the proper amounts of the amino acids it needs. In the early stages of your pregnancy, protein needs aren't that much higher than if you weren't pregnant, but as you get into the later stages (like the second and third trimester), the baby's growth starts to speed up and protein needs increase.
Read more: What to Expect With Pregnancy, Week by Week
Protein Needs While Pregnant
The current dietary recommendation for protein for nonpregnant women is 0.88 grams per kilogram of body weight. That means a woman who weighs 150 pounds would need roughly 60 grams of protein per day.
A January 2015 report in the Journal of Nutrition notes that, because pregnant women have increased protein needs, expecting women should increase their protein intake to 1.22 grams and 1.52 grams per kilogram of body weight during early-term and late-term gestation, respectively.
In other words, in the early stages of your pregnancy, or between 16 and 35 weeks, that number would jump to 83 grams of protein per day. From 35 weeks on, you may need closer to 104 grams daily.
If you're having trouble meeting your increased protein needs, you can safely supplement with protein shakes, but make sure to choose a protein shake that doesn't have unnecessary or harmful additives.
Also, keep in mind that protein shakes should be used as a supplement to help you meet your protein needs, but shouldn't take the place of eating a variety of different protein sources and maintaining a healthy, balanced diet.
Different Types of Protein Shakes
"Protein shake" is a broad term that can encompass a wide variety of different types of products. There are pre-made protein shakes, weight-loss protein shakes, meal-replacement protein shakes and protein shakes designed for bodybuilders.
Protein supplements made of everything from whey to soy to peas to hemp can be mixed with other ingredients to make your own protein shakes.
Some protein shakes and supplements contain only protein and others include a variety of ingredients that add vitamins and minerals to the mix. Some have adaptogenic herbs, like ashwagandha, or other types of supplements, like chlorella or spirulina.
If you want to include protein drinks while pregnant, your best bet is to make your own with a high-quality protein that doesn't contain added ingredients, just to be safe.
Protein Powder for Pregnancy
As Mission Health notes, pre-made protein shakes and meal replacement shakes may have added ingredients that offer vitamins and minerals in excess or haven't been adequately studied for use during pregnancy.
On the flip side, some of the protein shakes may be lacking in sufficient nutrients, so if you use them to replace a meal, you may end up nutrient deficient and risking potential harm to your developing baby. If you make your own, you have full control over the ingredients.
When using protein powder for pregnancy, choose one that contains minimal ingredients. There are several available that contain only one ingredient: the protein from which they're made. Avoid artificial sweeteners and synthetic ingredients.
Instead, create your own palate-pleasing protein shake by combining the protein powder with some fresh or frozen fruit, a high-quality milk or nondairy milk source and a little bit of healthy fat, like avocado. Blend it all together with a few ice cubes and enjoy.
Avoid Having Too Much Protein
While protein needs are higher during pregnancy, the report in Food and Nutrition Research notes that too much can actually have harmful effects on a developing fetus.
If you drink too many protein shakes while pregnant, in addition to eating a lot of protein-rich foods, it can put you way over your protein needs and may increase your risk of premature birth, lower birth weight and impaired growth.
The report recommends limiting protein intake to no more than 20 percent of calories to avoid any potential problems. MedlinePlus outlines a pregnant woman's calorie needs as 1,800 for the first trimester, 2,200 for the second trimester and 2,400 for the third trimester.
If you do the math, that means protein should not exceed 90 grams in the first trimester, 110 grams in the second trimester and 120 grams in the third trimester.
- Food and Nutrition Research: "Effects of Protein Energy Supplementation During Pregnancy on Fetal Growth: A Review of the Literature Focusing on Contextual Factors"
- Advances in Nutrition: "Protein and Amino Acid Requirements During Pregnancy"
- The Journal of Nutrition: "Protein Requirements of Healthy Pregnant Women During Early and Late Gestation Are Higher Than Current Recommendations"
- Mission Health: "Pregnancy and Protein Shakes – A Safe Combination?"
- MedlinePlus: "Eating Right During Pregnancy"