Protein: Getting enough and the best sources
What to Know
It’s no surprise that protein is an essential part of a healthy diet. Protein-rich foods are high in B vitamins (niacin, thiamin, riboflavin, and B6), vitamin E, iron, zinc, and magnesium. And 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.
It makes sense, then, that our protein needs increase with pregnancy and while breastfeeding. We need the additional protein for ourselves to support a growing uterus, breasts, milk, and blood supply. And we need extra building blocks to grow a baby and supply the baby with energy.
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.
- RDA for non-pregnant, non-breastfeeding women over 19 years of age = 46 grams
- RDA for pregnant and breastfeeding women = 71 grams
To determine your own unique protein needs, you can follow the below formulas:
- Weight in kg × 0.8 = minimum grams protein needed daily for non-pregnant and non-breastfeeding women (approximately 8 grams of protein for every 20 pounds of body weight)
- Weight in kg × 1.1 = minimum grams protein needed daily for pregnant women (approximately 11 grams of protein for every 20 pounds of body weight)
- Weight in kg x 1.3 = minimum grams protein needed daily for breastfeeding women (approximately 13 grams of protein for every 20 pounds of body weight)
But don’t get too caught up in the numbers. Research shows that the average American woman of childbearing age already consumes about 70 grams of protein daily. So it is very likely that you can get any extra protein you need just by eating a little bit more of the foods you already enjoy.
Sources of protein
Many foods are rich in protein, and not just foods from animals. Here’s a helpful guide of protein sources and amounts based on their recommended portion size:
- Meat, poultry, and fish: 3 ounces cooked contains 18 – 24 grams
- Eggs: 1 egg contains 6 grams
- Dairy: 1 cup milk has 8 grams; 1 ounce of cheese has approximately 6 grams; 1 cup low fat yogurt has 12 grams; 1 cup low fat Greek yogurt has over 15 grams
- Soy products: 1 cup soy milk contains 7 grams; ½ cup tofu contains 10 grams
- Nuts and seeds: ¼ cup nuts has over 5 grams
- Beans and peas: ½ cup beans has over 7 grams
- Whole grains: 1 cup cooked quinoa has 8 grams; 1 cup cooked oatmeal has 6 grams; 1 slice 100% whole wheat bread has 4 grams
Choosing the best protein sources
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:
- What other nutrients are delivered along with the protein-rich food?
Focusing on adding nuts and seeds, beans and peas, whole grains, safe-to-consume seafood like salmon and cod, eggs, white meat poultry, lean or extra-lean cuts of meat, and soy products, as these choices offer a host of other health benefits. You can increase your protein consumption by eating a little bit more of these lean proteins each day.
Some protein-rich foods contain nutrients to avoid or limit. For instance, a high in protein rib-eye steak is also high in saturated fat, which has been associated with cardiovascular diseases. Deli ham is high in protein but also high in sodium. It is best to mostly choose lower sodium, leaner meats. Dairy is a good source of protein, but some cheeses and whole milk are high in saturated fat, while most fruited yogurt has added sugar or artificial sugar. Aim for 1-2 servings of dairy per day and choose low fat or non-fat milk, low fat cheese and no added sugar and no artificial sugar yogurt. You can flavor yogurt with fruit if you don’t like the taste of plain yogurt.
As with all foods, the less processed your protein choices, the better.
- Is the protein-rich food “complete”?
Animal protein sources—meat, poultry, seafood, eggs, and dairy—contain all the essential amino acids our bodies need. Vegetarian protein sources—nuts and seeds, beans and peas, and whole grains—lack one or more of the essential amino acids.
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.
No matter your specific diet, everyone can benefit from selecting a wide variety of lean protein-rich foods.
And remember, our bodies prefer to eat protein throughout the day versus in one big serving. Having a little protein with each meal and snack helps stabilize blood sugar and keeps you feeling satisfied longer between meals.
What to Do
If you’re pregnant or breastfeeding: aim for a minimum of 71 grams of protein per day (and see below for food examples and tips!)
If you’re neither pregnant nor breastfeeding: aim for a minimum of 46 grams of protein per day (and see below for food examples and tips!)
Increase your protein consumption by eating a little more of lean versions of protein-rich foods.
Try eating more nuts and seeds, beans and peas, whole grains, safe-to-consume seafood like salmon and cod, eggs, white meat poultry, and soy products. As with all foods, the less processed your protein choices, the better.
- Ideas for 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 that will keep you satisfied for hours.
- 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 butter) and banana sandwich on whole grain bread.
- Ideas for 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 low fat cheese burrito, taco or quesadilla.
- Make your own bean-based veggie burgers (or buy them).
- 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.
- Choose safe-to-consume seafood at least two meals per week as your main protein food.
Limit less healthy 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 contain 5-10 grams of fat per portion (100g or around 3.5 oz) such as eye of round roast, sirloin tip side steak, top round roast and steak, bottom round roast and steak, and top sirloin steak. Opt for grassfed if you can (you’ll be getting more omega-3 fatty acids), and either way, don’t eat more than a 3-4 ounce portion or two a week. If you like your meat grilled, so as to reduce the potentially cancer-causing compounds in meat that are released at high temperatures, marinate your meat first, partially pre-cook and grill over a lower flame.
Enjoy a variety of protein-rich foods
Especially if you are vegetarian or vegan, vary your protein sources to ensure your body has all of 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.
Follow this 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)
“Pregnancy Nutrition” American Pregnancy Association. date accessed 16 July 2018
“Nutrient Recommendations: Dietary Reference Intakes” Institute of Medicine. date accessed 16 July 2018