“As a doctor and recent fitness enthusiast, I love listening to your podcasts because I know you’ll only give me evidence-based information with a dash of common sense. What I’d like to know is if protein powders are safe in pregnancy and if so, which ones in particular.”
Before I talk about protein powder specifically, let’s talk briefly about protein in general during pregnancy. Protein needs increase during pregnancy, along with the requirements for lots of other nutrients. How much protein you take in during you pregnancy can affect things like the baby’s birthweight and body composition, head circumference, and could even affect the baby’s long term risks of diabetes, heart disease, or obesity.
How Much Protein Do You Need During Pregnancy?
You probably won’t be surprised to learn that mothers who don’t eat enough protein tend to have smaller babies and higher rates of pre-term births. However, some research suggests that diets very high in protein could create different problems.
Unfortunately, the current guidelines for pregnant women on how much protein they should take in are pretty loosey-goosey. The Institutes of Medicine say that it’s OK for pregnant women to get anywhere from 10% to 35% of their calories from protein. But from the research I’ve reviewed, the sweet spot appears to be something more like 15 to 18%.
To get a rough idea of what that translates into, divide your current weight in pounds by 2.2 to get your weight in kilograms. Then, multiply that number by 1.5 to for the approximate number of grams of protein per day. Keep in mind that this number will change as you go through your pregnancy because your weight will be changing. Then, if you’d like to see how much protein you get from common foods, check my protein cheat sheet.
This Matters Even More
With all this talk about protein, however, we don’t want to lose sight of the bigger picture. How much weight you gain during pregnancy is likely to have a bigger impact on your baby’s weight and future disease risk than how many of your calories you’re getting from protein. So, in addition to keeping an eye on your protein intake, it’s really important to manage your total calorie intake as well.
Obviously it’s important for you to get enough calories to sustain your baby’s growth and development. This is no time for dieting! But excessive weight gain during pregnancy can be just as harmful.
Does the Type of Protein Matter?
Where the protein comes from also seems to matter. While animal protein provides high quality protein, a couple studies have suggested that diets very high in meat are not ideal. And by “very high in meat,” I mean a pound of red meat per day. (Believe it or not, they actually advised this back in the 50s as a way to prevent pre-eclampsia.
One advantage to getting protein from a variety of sources, including meat, poultry, fish, and plant-based sources is that you get a better range of nutrients that way. Red meat is rich in iron and B12, which can help prevent anemia during pregnancy. Fish, on the other hand is rich in DHA, which helps support the baby’s brain development. And plant protein sources like legumes are rich in folate, which aids neural development as well. None of these protein sources is a good source of all of these nutrients. So mix it up.
What About Protein Powders?
And finally, we come to Cherry’s question. Is it OK to use protein powder as a source of protein during pregnancy and, if so, which ones?
Strangely, Web MD gives the following warning about whey protein (but no other protein powder):
“Given the lack of evidence about its long-term safety, women who are pregnant or breastfeeding should not take whey protein unless a doctor recommends it.”
I ran this by a couple of my colleagues who do protein research and none of us could really think of a rationale for this warning. It’s true that there is virtually no controlled research on the use of whey protein powder during pregnancy and lactation. On the other hand, whey is a natural food product. If you’re eating cheese or other dairy products during your pregnancy, you’re already consuming whey protein.
Of course, whey protein powder is a much more concentrated form. However, given the popularity of whey protein, I’m pretty sure that plenty of pregnant and nursing women are using it–and I’m not aware of any adverse effects being reported.
Here’s my opinion: Assuming that neither your total protein intake nor your total calorie intake is excessive, I wouldn’t be concerned about using whey protein or any other protein powder to help meet your protein needs during pregnancy.
However, before taking my advice, you might want to run that by your obstetrician, just to be sure that she agrees with my assessment, in view of your individual situation. And whether or not you’re pregnant, I always suggest choosing an unflavored protein powder, without any herbs, nutrients, or other ingredients added.