Getting Enough Protein While Pregnant and Breastfeeding


Read time: 4 minutes

What to know about your protein needs while pregnant and breastfeeding

  • Why is protein important?

  • How much protein do you need while pregnant and breastfeeding?

  • Quality protein sources with meal and snack ideas

Why is protein important?

It’s no surprise that protein is an essential part of a healthy diet. Protein-rich foods provide many nutrients, including B vitamins (niacin, thiamin, riboflavin, B12, and B6), vitamin E, iron, zinc, and magnesium.1

Protein is composed of amino acids, our bodies’ building blocks. Virtually every part of us— our skin, nails, and hair on the outside and our muscles, bones, blood, and hormones on the inside—requires amino acids.2

It makes sense, then, that our protein needs increase with pregnancy and while breastfeeding. We need the additional protein to support a growing uterus, breasts, milk, and blood supply.3 And we need extra building blocks to help support our baby’s growth and development.

How much protein do I need?

There are multiple ways to determine your protein needs.

For general guidance, a good starting point is following the Recommended Dietary Allowance (RDA) for protein, which is developed by the Institute of Medicine’s Food and Nutrition Board.

  • RDA for non-pregnant, non-breastfeeding women over 19 years of age = 46 grams

  • RDA for pregnant and breastfeeding women = 71 grams5

To determine your own unique protein needs, you can follow the below formulas:

For non-pregnant and non-breastfeeding:

  • Weight in kg × 0.8 = minimum grams protein needed daily (approximately 8 grams of protein for every 20 pounds of body weight)5

For pregnancy:

  • Weight in kg × 1.1 = minimum grams protein needed daily (approximately 11 grams of protein for every 20 pounds of body weight)5

For lactation:

  • Weight in kg x 1.3 = minimum grams protein needed daily (approximately 13 grams of protein for every 20 pounds of body weight)5

But don’t get too caught up in the numbers. Research indicates that the average American of childbearing age already consumes enough, or even more, protein than is recommended.6 So it is very likely that you can get any extra protein needed just by eating a little bit more of the foods you already enjoy.

Food sources of protein

Many foods are rich in protein, and not just foods from animals. Here’s a helpful guide to protein sources and approximate gram amounts based on their recommended portion size:

  • Meat, poultry, and fish, 3 ounces cooked: 18 – 24 grams

  • Eggs, 1 whole: 6 grams

  • Dairy

    • 1 cup milk: 8 grams

    • 1 ounce of cheese: 6 grams

    • 1 cup low-fat yogurt: 12 grams

    • 1 cup low-fat Greek yogurt: 15 grams

  • Soy products

    • 1 cup soymilk: 7 grams

    • ½ cup tofu: 10 grams

  • Nuts, ¼ cup: 5 grams

  • Beans, ½ cup: 7 grams

  • Whole grains

    • 1 cup cooked quinoa: 8 grams

    • 1 cup cooked oatmeal: 6 grams

    • 1 slice 100% whole wheat bread: 4 grams

How to choose quality protein for your diet

Not all protein sources are created equal. Paying attention to the types of foods you eat for protein is just as important as the amount of protein you consume.

When selecting your protein sources, consider these two things:

1. What other nutrients are delivered along with the protein-rich food?

Focus on nutrient-rich protein sources

Choose nuts and seeds, beans and peas, whole grains, safe-to-consume seafood, eggs, poultry, lean or extra-lean cuts of meat, low-fat and fat-free dairy, and soy products. These protein foods often have other nutrients that are beneficial to our health.

For example, plant-based sources of protein such as nuts, seeds, beans, whole grains, and soy contain fiber, vitamins, and minerals. Many of these foods also have beneficial unsaturated fats.2 Some fish such as salmon, anchovies, sardines, and shrimp contain the omega-3 fatty acid called DHA, which is important for baby’s brain, nervous system, and retina.7

You can increase your protein consumption during pregnancy and breastfeeding by eating a little bit more of these lean proteins each day.

Some protein-rich foods contain nutrients that are often best limited.

For instance, protein-rich beef, pork, sausage, and hot dogs are also usually packed with saturated fat, which has been associated with cardiovascular diseases.8,9

Deli meats* and other processed meats are high in protein but also usually laden with sodium. The Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommends choosing mostly lower sodium, leaner meats.6

Dairy is a good choice when it comes to protein, but some cheeses, yogurts, and whole milk are high in saturated fat. Additionally, most fruited yogurt has added sugar or artificial sweeteners.6

Aim to choose low-fat or non-fat milk and yogurt with no added sugar and no artificial sugar yogurt. You can flavor yogurt with fresh or frozen fruit should you not enjoy the taste of plain yogurt.

As with all foods, choosing less processed proteins most often is the goal.

*If you are pregnant, it is recommended to avoid eating hot dogs and deli meats unless they are heated until steaming hot (165F throughout) just before consuming.14,15

Read more:

Types of Fats: Knowing Which to Choose

2. Is the protein-rich food “complete”?

Animal protein sources—meat, poultry, seafood, eggs, and dairy—contain all the essential amino acids our bodies need to make protein. Most vegetarian protein sources—nuts and seeds, beans and peas, and whole grains—lack one or more of the essential amino acids.2

But don’t worry, vegetarian and vegans can still consume the full range of essential amino acids by eating a variety of plant-based protein-containing foods weekly. Be sure to choose a variety of plant-based proteins daily to help meet your needs.2

No matter your specific diet, everyone can benefit from selecting a wide variety of lean protein-rich foods.

Read more: Vegetarian Diet During Pregnancy, Breastfeeding, and for the Family

Wondering how to include more protein in your daily eating pattern? Reach out to our team of registered dietitian nutritionists and lactation consultants for free! They’re here to help on our free to live chat from Monday – Friday 8am - 6pm (ET). Chat Now!

Tips to help get more protein into your day

Meal and snack ideas to help get more protein-rich foods

Quality protein foods to focus on include nuts and seeds, beans and peas, whole grains, safe-to-consume seafood like salmon and cod, eggs, poultry, and soy products.

Try adding more nuts, seeds, beans, and legumes to your diet for delicious, fiber-rich protein sources that are lower in saturated fat.

Meal and snack ideas to increase nuts and seeds:

  • Add a tablespoon or two of raw or toasted nuts like almonds, walnuts or pecans, or seeds like pumpkin or sunflower, to raw or cooked vegetable or grain dishes to add extra flavor and a nice crunch.

  • Make a pesto with nuts, fresh herbs, olive oil and garlic and toss it with whole grains or whole grain pasta.

  • Enjoy a quarter cup of nuts along with a piece of fruit or raw veggies for a protein and fiber-filled snack.

  • Top your oatmeal or other breakfast cereal with a tablespoon or two of raw or toasted nuts or seeds.

  • Don’t forget nut butters count too! Have an old-fashioned peanut butter (or other nut or seed butter) and banana sandwich on whole grain bread.

Meal and snack ideas to increase beans and peas:

  • Toss them in with your vegetable or grain salads.

  • Blend them into a bean puree like hummus or black bean dip (or buy it pre-made) and enjoy it with raw veggies or whole grain crackers.

  • Enjoy them in a bean and cheese burrito, taco, or quesadilla.

  • Make your own bean-based veggie burgers (or buy them).

  • Add beans and peas to a veggie soup or chili.

  • Toss with a little acid (try lemon juice or red wine vinegar) and olive oil, season them with salt and pepper and enjoy!

  • Toss with olive oil, salt and pepper and roast in a 400-degree oven for 40 minutes for a crunchy snack.

The Food and Drug Administration recommends choosing safe-to-consume seafood at least two meals per week as your main protein food.10

Limit protein sources like red meat, processed and deli meats, and full-fat dairy

If you do choose to eat red meat, stick with lean or extra-lean cuts of meats that are at least 90% lean, such as eye of round roast, top sirloin, top loin, chuck shoulder, arm roast, as well as pork loin, tenderloin, and center loin.6,11,12

Processed meats are also recommended to be limited. These include any meat that has been cured, salted/brined, fermented, smoked, or any other process that changes its taste and increases shelf-life.13 Processed meats include bacon, sausage, jerky, hot dogs*, ham, deli meat*, and canned meats.

*Remember that if you are pregnant, it is recommended to avoid eating hot dogs and deli meats unless they are heated until steaming hot (165F throughout) just before consuming.14,15

Enjoy a variety of protein-rich foods

Especially if you are vegetarian or vegan, vary your protein sources to ensure your body has all the building blocks it needs for you and your baby.

Include a little bit of protein with every meal rather than a big portion at one meal

This tactic will help stabilize your blood sugar and keep you feeling satisfied longer between meals.

Here is an example of one day’s worth of meals and snacks that supplies more than 70 grams of protein

Breakfast: 1/2 cup raw oats (6 grams protein) cooked with 1 cup low-fat milk (8 grams protein) + 1 banana

Snack: 1 string low-fat cheese (7 grams protein) + carrot sticks

Lunch: Mixed vegetable salad with 1 hard-boiled egg (6 grams protein) and ½ cup chickpeas (6 grams protein)

Snack: 1 slice 100% whole grain toast (4 grams protein) + 2 tablespoons peanut or nut butter (7 grams protein) + 1 cup strawberries

Dinner: 3 oz cooked salmon (20 grams protein) + 1 cup quinoa (8 grams protein) + stir-fried green vegetables

Total protein: 72 grams protein (not accounting for the small amount provided by fruits and vegetables)

Let’s Chat!

We know parenting often means sleepless nights, stressful days, and countless questions and confusion, and we want to support you in your feeding journey and beyond.

Our Happy Experts are a team of lactation consultants and registered dietitian nutritionists certified in infant and maternal nutrition – and they’re all moms, too! They’re here to offer personalized support on our free, one-on-one, live chat platform Mon-Fri 8am-6pm (ET). No appointment needed, no email or sign-up required. Chat Now!

Read more about the experts who help write our content!

For more on this topic, check out the following articles:

Meal & Snack Ideas for Meeting Your Protein Needs While Pregnant and Breastfeeding

Protein Rich Meal Plan for When Pregnant or Breastfeeding Twins and Multiples

Types of Fats: Knowing Which to Choose

How to Include More Whole Grains in Your and Your Child’s Diet

How to Include More Leafy Green Vegetables in Your and Your Child’s Diet