Written by Carina Fabia
Last updated on: Jun 24, 2022
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Yes, it is safe to take protein powder during pregnancy as long as you do not exceed your recommended daily protein consumption. A protein shake should be used as a supplement to a healthy diet. When pregnant, it is recommended to avoid protein powders with high levels of carbohydrates and added sugars.
Women need to consume more than normal during pregnancy. Proper maternal food intake ensures the adequate development of the fetal body and brain. During pregnancy, a woman’s diet must contain the appropriate nutrients, with protein needs being especially important. Protein is broken down into amino acids and assists with bodily functions including, the growth and restoration of muscle tissue, hair nails skin bones and organs.
Research suggests the average woman under 65 years of age requires 47-48 grams of protein per day. The same research found pregnant women in the second and third trimester need considerably more protein with 64.6 grams per day being recommended in the second trimester and 70 grams per day recommended in the third trimester (1).
Another study titled ‘Protein and Amino Acid Requirements during Pregnancy’, concluded a greater protein intake was required during pregnancy. During early gestation, 79 grams of protein per day was advised. This works out as 14% of daily calories. And during late gestation 108 grams of protein per day was recommended which works out as 17% of daily calories. The study also stated animal studies suggested the need for the essential amino acids; threonine, lysine, isoleucine, and tryptophan are increased toward later stages of pregnancy, but not in the same proportion to protein requirement as during early gestation (2).
Although both research papers differ in the extent of protein consumption during pregnancy both agree, protein should be increased during pregnancy. And protein requirements increase over the course of the pregnancy. If you need any advice on the amount of protein you should take during each stage of your pregnancy you should consult with a medical professional.
Protein is an essential macronutrient. A sufficient amount is required for normal fetus development. However, overconsumption can result in impaired and disturbed growth (3). For this reason, it is important to ensure your protein consumption remains inside recommended intake levels. If enough protein is consumed from protein rich foods in a healthy diet, the consumption of protein powder will be unnecessary.
Protein shakes are best used during pregnancy when not enough protein is being consumed through food sources. Protein powder should just be used to make up for any nutritional gap. It is important not to take protein more than the recommended intake as research found supplements with excess protein (more 20% of energy as protein) provided to women with a diet already containing adequate protein may conversely impair fetal growth (3).
Protein powder is beneficial to pregnant women when their protein consumption is below the recommended amount for the stage of pregnancy they are in. Sometimes it is hard to hit these levels through food sources alone and protein shakes are a convenient way to hit the required protein intake levels. Having a protein deficiency can cause embryonic loss, impaired growth of organs, and functional changes in the body's metabolism (4).
Research has found protein deficient pregnant women who supplemented with protein powders increased birth weight, improved fetal growth decreased lower birth rate ratio (3). It is safe for pregnant women to take most protein powders if they remain within their recommended daily protein intake.
Some protein powders may not be appropriate for women during pregnancy. The issues which can be caused include:
If allergic to dairy or lactose intolerant some protein supplements can cause digestive distress. Symptoms of digestive distress include; gas, bloating, nausea, and diarrhea. If any of these issues are experienced from taking a protein supplement whilst pregnant, consumption should stop immediately. If allergic to milk, plant based protein powder is recommended. Pea isolate is a great option as it is hypoallergenic and lactose free. If not allergic to milk, whey isolate is also a good alternative which is extremely low in lactose.
Some protein shakes are sweetened by non-calorific artificial sweeteners (NAS), they are a popular choice world-wide due to their low-calorie count. However, some studies have shown that NAS’s can drive the development of glucose intolerance and cause intestinal trouble (5). This makes it worthwhile to check your protein powder to see if any artificial sweeteners have been added and if so, in what quantity. If you find it does contain NAS it might be worth swapping to a different brand or type of vegan protein powder that has a lower level of sweeteners. Xylitol and erythritol are two examples of non-calorific artificial sweeteners which, when consumed in large doses, can cause stomach upset (6). If problems persist with any protein powder you should consult with a medical professional.
Two research studies "The Harlem Trial" and "The Aberdeen Study" suggested a high protein diet has a detrimental effect on the developing fetus and can lead to several issues (7). These issues include:
• Increased risk of premature birth.
• Low birth weight
• Reduced fetal growth.
Long term effects in the offspring of mothers who had a high protein dies during pregnancy include:
• Higher blood pressure at the age of 27-30 years.
• Higher cortisol secretion during stress at the age of 36 years.
But, another study found, high protein intake was weakly associated with pre-term delivery. And contrary to the results of 'The Harlem Trial', no indications of damage to fetal growth or perinatal mortality were observed (8). This suggests no adverse effects will be encountered from the consumption of protein powder during pregnancy. However, it is advised women do not exceed the recommended protein intake at each stage of their pregnancy.
The Clean Label Project has recently released a report which dictates that more than half of plant based protein powders have contaminations and significant traces of heavy metals. This includes lead, arsenic, mercury, and other harmful chemicals (9).
However, scientific research suggests heavy metal exposure via protein powder powder ingestion does not pose an increased non-carcinogenic risk to human health. Further, no carcinogenic risk was expected from ingestion of protein powder supplements. This study demonstrates the health risks of heavy metals in protein powders should be conducted within the context of relevant background exposures and established health based standards instead of the presence of hazardous substances alone (10).
If traces of heavy metal and toxins in a protein powder concern you, and you still want to take protein powder during your pregnancy the study which made these findings also states 90% of whey protein powders they tested are free of heavy metals and toxins. And 100% of egg white powders tested were free of heavy metals and toxins.
Some protein powders have considerable amounts of added sugar. It is always recommended to go for a protein powder with no added sugar. This is especially true for pregnant women. The reason for this is sugar consumption during pregnancy can lead to complications. One research study found sugar consumption during pregnancy may contribute to increased gestational weight gain and the development of pregnancy complications, including gestational diabetes, preeclampsia and preterm birth. Additionally, the study discovered evidence maternal sugar intake during pregnancy may impact neonatal and childhood metabolism, taste perception and obesity risk (11).
The use of sweeteners is important to assess to when choosing a protein powder. Sweeteners are sugar substitutes that mimic the sweet taste of sugar but have a negligible impact on energy intake. These sweeteners are often referred to as non-calorific artificial sweeteners (NAS). While there have been fewer studies of the impacts of alternative sweetener consumption before and during pregnancy, there is some evidence to suggest effects on infant outcomes including pre-term birth risk, increased infant body composition and offspring preference for sweet foods, although mechanisms are unclear (11).
The available research suggests alternative sugars may be equally or more harmful than regular sugars. Some long-term prospective studies raise the concern, consumption of artificial sweeteners might contribute to the development of metabolic derangements that lead to obesity, T2D, and cardiovascular disease (12, 13). Whilst the effects of artificial sweeteners are not clear. Based off the available research it is recommended to minimise the intake of both added sugar and sweeteners whilst pregnant. For further advice consult a medical professional.
Some protein powders such as mass gainers come with extra calories. This can lead to weight gain. Another problem is protein powders with high amounts of added sugar or sweeteners which can lead to diet with a high glycemic load. The problem with unhealthy weight gain during pregnancy is the potential for health problems developing for both the mother and child. These health problems can include incident maternal obesity, paediatric obesity, and lifelong elevated cardiovascular and metabolic risk for mother and child (14).
To avoid unhealthy weight gain during pregnancy a multi-component approach is advised. This includes a balanced diet with a low glycemic load (this means food sources low on the glycemic index) and moderate intensity physical activity for 30-60 minutes per day for 3 to 5 days a week. This approach is recommended from the first trimester of pregnancy through to the end of the postpartum period (15).
Glucose is the best studied substrate in human pregnancy and a direct relationship has been found between maternal blood glucose levels and size at birth. Altering the type of carbohydrate consumed (high- v. low-glycemic sources) changes postprandial glucose and insulin responses in both pregnant and non-pregnant women, and a consistent change in the type of carbohydrate eaten during pregnancy influences both the rate of feto-placental growth and maternal weight gain. Thus, altering the source of maternal dietary carbohydrate may prove to be a valuable tool in the management of pregnancies at risk for anomalous feto-placental growth (16).
In terms of protein powder to take during pregnancy it is strongly advised to only take those with a low glycemic load. As mentioned earlier a low glycemic load is a food source low on the glycemic index. Of the studies carried out on protein powders, all which were analysed were classified as low GI based on standard classification of low GI being ≤ 55. In this study, there were plant based protein powders using a blend of pea isolate and rice protein, and whey protein powders, using a whey isolate and pea blend (17). Any type of protein powder whether whey based or plant based with low sugar and carbohydrate contents per serving should be a healthy way to add protein into a healthy diet.
Taking a protein powder during pregnancy is only necessary if you are not hitting your daily recommended protein consumption. If you can do this through consuming protein rich foods, a protein supplement is unnecessary. However, if you are falling short of your required protein levels, protein powder is a great way to help you hit them. Below are some guidelines to choosing a protein powder which is safe to take during pregnancy:
• If you have any food allergies choose a protein powder which is hypoallergenic such as pea protein powder. If you are not allergic to dairy or vegan, whey protein isolate is a good choice with a very low amount of lactose. Research has found whey protein isolate and concentrate have lactose levels which are low enough to not cause lactose intolerant individuals issues (18).
• Avoid non-calorific artificial sweeteners (NAS) such as xylitol and erythritol.
• Avoid mass gainer protein powders which have high calorie and carbohydrate counts.
• Choose a protein powder with no added sugar and a low amount of total sugar, 1 gram or less per 30 gram serving. There are many protein powders on the market which fit this criteria.
• Choose a protein powder with a low GI score such as a whey isolate, soy protein or pea isolate.
• If concerned about traces of heavy metals and pesticides avoid plant based protein powders. Or choose a plant based protein powder which has been tested.
• If you are not getting the required levels of the essential amino acids, choose a complete protein source such a whey isoalte. This is especially important during the latter stages of pregnancy (2).
We have compiled a "Best Protein Powder For Pregnancy" list which goes into more detail to help you choose a pregnacy safe protein powder.
Yes, it is safe to take protein shakes when pregnant as long as you are not exceeding the recommended protein consumption for the stage of pregnancy you are in. There are many protein powders such as soy protein isolate, whey isolate, whey concentrate and pea protein which are ideal ways to hit your daily protein needs. The key thing is to choose a protein powder which has a low glycaemic index with no added sugar, a low level of carbohydrates and a low-calorie count.
Towards the latter stages of pregnancy, a protein powder with all nine essential amino acids may be beneficial. Protein powder should be used as supplement to a healthy diet and most of your dietary protein needs should come from protein rich foods. If in any doubt about whether you should take protein shakes when pregnant consult a medical professional.