Share on Pinterest

If you’re pregnant, you’ve probably already heard that you’re eating for two now! While that’s not exactly true (you don’t need any additional calories in the first trimester and should aim for about 340 to 450 extra calories per day later in your pregnancy), your diet is very important for your baby’s growth.

How much protein you eat during pregnancy is vital for your growing baby and affects everything from your baby’s birthweight to the size of their head. It could even affect how healthy they are as an adult!

But no pressure — this shouldn’t be cause for stress. There are plenty of ways to get enough protein from whole foods in your daily meals.

And if you have pregnancy-related nausea or don’t have enough of an appetite, some kinds of protein powders may temporarily help fill the nutrition gap.

Protein powders aren’t just for body builders. These concentrated forms of food proteins can help supplement your pregnancy diet when necessary. A single scoop of protein powder can give you up to 30 grams of protein.

This protein might come from:

  • eggs
  • milk
  • soybeans
  • potatoes
  • peas
  • rice
  • hemp

They’re often fortified with other nutrients, but protein powders aren’t designed to replace a meal.

And not all protein powders are created equal. Some have added ingredients or hidden chemicals that aren’t safe to eat while you’re pregnant — or when you’re not, for that matter.

Some protein powders contain added thickeners, artificial flavoring, coloring, and sugars — junk you and your baby don’t need.

Pregnant women need to eat about 70 to 100 grams of protein a day, depending on total body weight.

To put this into perspective, a hard-boiled egg gives you about 6 grams of protein, and a skinless chicken breast provides 26 grams. Not a fan of eating so much meat and dairy? Good news: Plenty of plant foods are also rich in protein. For example, a half cup of lentils has about 9 grams.

Here’s a sample daily protein intake totaling 72 grams:

  • boiled egg (6 grams)
  • cup of cottage cheese (28 grams)
  • handful of nuts (6 grams)
  • 3 ounces of baked salmon (a great fish option for pregnancy) and a bowl of lentil soup (15 grams + 9 grams)
  • a glass of milk (8 grams)

If you’re struggling to get all that protein through your food, though, you may want to use a protein powder as a supplement — not a meal replacement — to boost your intake, with the approval of your OB.

Protein powders can help you meet your protein needs during pregnancy. But talk to your OB before you add any kind of supplement to your diet — including protein powders.

Once you have the go-ahead, ask your doctor what protein powder they recommend. As with any kind of food supplement, it’s best to look for a unflavored variety with very few ingredients. A good rule of thumb: If you can’t pronounce it, don’t eat it.

Whey powder is a natural protein powder that’s made from milk. Look for pure whey powder that has no added ingredients.

But if you’re allergic or sensitive to dairy, make sure you’re not taking a milk-based dairy powder. The last thing you want during pregnancy is unnecessary bloating and gas — or an allergic reaction.

In addition to avoiding whey, carefully check protein powder labels for milk ingredients like casein or lactose. Your best bet is to reach for a pure pea protein powder instead.

Getting too much

Too much protein during pregnancy has its own set of risks. You probably don’t need protein powder at all if you’re eating a range of protein-rich foods every day.

A study in Scotland that’s referenced in this 2014 review of research found that pregnant women who ate too much protein and too few carbs had slower-growing babies. (This is also one reason why the keto diet isn’t recommended while you’re pregnant.)

A 2018 study found that pregnant women on a high protein and low carbohydrate diet had a higher risk of gestational diabetes.

So consider this: It’s easier to get too much protein from a simple-to-drink supplement than whole food sources. For that reason, you might want to step away from the powder and reach for a handful of cashews instead.

Consuming toxic ingredients

Also, protein powders fall into the “dietary supplement” category. This means that in the United States, they’re not regulated by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA).

The powder manufacturers are the ones to check the safety and label what they put into their protein powders. Are all manufacturers trustworthy? We hope so, but it’s not always a sure thing.

There’s no way of being 100 percent sure that you’re getting what a label says. So, you may not be getting the amount of protein you need for a healthy pregnancy. And you may be getting toxic, unmentioned ingredients like heavy metals or pesticides, according to the Clean Label Project.

Try to get most of your protein from whole foods. Just add a scoop of a trusted protein powder when you really need it.

Packing on the sugar

Look out for hidden sugars in protein powders. Too much sugar can cause unhealthy weight gain — which isn’t good for pregnancy — and spike your blood sugar levels.

Some kinds of protein powders can have up to 23 grams of sugar in just one scoop! To put that in perspective, the American Heart Association recommends that women have a daily limit of 25 grams of sugar.

Save your allowed — and completely reasonable — sugar intake for the good stuff (ice cream, chocolate, and fresh or dried fruit).

Perhaps the best way to get protein is through your food rather than a powder. Lean meats (like chicken or turkey), low-mercury fish, and certain grains and legumes are among the best choices.

You can get a whopping one-third of your daily protein requirement from just one serving of red meat. A 4-ounce serving of ground beef gives you about 24 grams of protein!

So enjoy a steak or burger once or twice a week, but don’t go nuts. Red meat is high in cholesterol and fats and may affect your heart health. Additionally, a 2014 review found that mothers who ate more animal protein during pregnancy had children with higher blood pressure.

Some seafood is also a great choice for you. But bigger fish sometimes contain mercury, a toxin. The FDA advises that pregnant women avoid fish like:

  • mackerel
  • swordfish
  • tilefish

Also avoid raw or undercooked seafood. This means no fish-based sushi while you’re pregnant or nursing.

The best plant proteins include:

  • legumes
  • lentils
  • whole grains
  • brown rice
  • oatmeal
  • barley
  • nuts

Pasteurized dairy products like milk, hard cheeses, cottage cheese, and yogurt are also good sources of protein. But just say no to soft, fancy cheeses like brie and blue. They may contain unpasteurized milk and other toxins.

Some kinds of protein powders are safe during pregnancy. Adding a spoonful — when you need it — can help meet daily protein needs for you and your growing baby.

But it’s a somewhat unregulated market, and protein powders aren’t typically made and sold with pregnant women in mind. Many may have added or unknown ingredients that aren’t safe — and don’t belong in any kind of food or supplement.

Keep a food diary to estimate how much protein and other nutrients you’re getting every day. You may not need to take a protein powder. And besides, too much protein can be too much of a good thing, and this should be avoided.

As always, run any supplements — including dietary ones — by your OB.