A healthy diet is top of the list of priorities during pregnancy, as a healthy mum is more likely to grow a healthy baby. In fact, maternal diet is one of the most important factors associated with adequate fetal growth!
While it’s important to ensure you’re getting your full range of vitamins, minerals and nutrients during pregnancy, protein in particular is one of the most important food groups to ensure you’re getting enough of, as it’s key for fetal tissue growth, especially for the baby’s brain.
The saying may go that you ‘eat for two’ while pregnant, but that’s not necessarily the case - especially not in terms of protein! It’s actually recommended to eat about 6 grams more protein than you normally would, which isn’t a huge stretch.
However, if you follow a plant-based diet and rely on protein powder to reach that recommended daily protein intake, or if you just enjoy your protein smoothies and shakes, there’s no reason you have to ditch these during pregnancy - as long as you choose a simple, “clean”, uncontaminated vegan protein powder. We’ll take you through what to look for in a protein powder for pregnancy, but before adding any supplements to your diet make sure you talk to a dietitian or health professional.
In this guide we’ll be covering:
- Are protein powders safe for pregnant women?
- Which ingredients should I avoid?
- How much protein powder do I need?
- Are there any risks involved?
- What are the benefits of protein powders for pregnant women?
Are protein powders safe for pregnant women?
Yes, protein powders are safe while pregnant - but not all protein powders are created equally.
“Protein powders” can be used as a term to encompass all kinds of things, from weight-loss protein shakes to meal replacement shakes. They can be made from whey to soy to peas, and can be mixed with all kinds of different ingredients, additives and sweeteners (our ‘What’s in Your Protein Powder’ guide explains more).
The most important thing when you’re pregnant is to ensure you’re consuming whole food nutrients through a nutritious, balanced diet, so replacing meals with protein shakes or meal-replacement shakes certainly isn’t advisable.
However, adding a scoop of a “clean”, simple protein powder won’t be harmful to you or the baby. You’ll want to choose a protein powder with an extremely simple formula, no additional vitamins or minerals, and check the label carefully.
Our Unflavoured RITUAL Vegan Protein (suitable for pregnancy), for example, only has 3 natural ingredients: a simple blend of pea, hemp and quinoa protein and absolutely nothing else. It’s also tested for heavy metals and grown with pesticides, herbicides and fungicides, all of which can often be found in other protein powders.
If you see any ingredients you don’t recognise with complex chemical names, as always it’s best to avoid! You need to know exactly what you’re putting in your body - and what you’re putting in your baby’s body too.
What ingredients should I avoid in my protein powder when pregnant?
Additional vitamins or minerals, especially if you’re taking a prenatal vitamin supplement, which will already provide all your micronutrients. Normally you might look for products to give you an extra nutrition boost, but during pregnancy you want to ensure you’re not consuming excessive amounts, which could have adverse effects on yours and your baby’s health.
Added sugar, which may increase your risk of gestational diabetes and blood sugar imbalances.
- Artificial sweeteners. Look out for the most popular sweeteners, like sucralose, saccharin and aspartame, which can also affect your blood sugar through your microbiome. These sweeteners are present in a lot of protein powders, so make sure to triple check your protein powder of choice is free from these! Opt for natural sweeteners like stevia extract instead, which are considered safe for pregnancy.
Herbs, greens or ‘superfoods’. Again, you might usually want to try out some harmless herbs in your protein powder, but many of these haven’t been proven safe for pregnancy. They also haven’t been proven unsafe either - but it’s always better to err on the side of caution with the unknown!
Caffeine is an ingredient found in many protein powders. Ditch those caffeinated shakes, because guidelines for pregnant women recommend limited caffeine intake, to about 200mg a day. Track your caffeine intake during pregnancy (remember that both tea and chocolate include caffeine too) and avoid any protein powders which list caffeine as an ingredient.
Processed soy-based protein powders. Processed soy has negative associations with pregnancy anyway, because it’s high in phytic acid, which can affect the body’s absorption of vitamins and minerals. Soy is also highly contaminated with pesticide residue, which you definitely don’t want to be feeding your baby! Opt for a pea or hemp-based protein instead. Read more about the differences between soy and pea protein here.
Pesticides, herbicides, chemicals and other contaminants. These might not be listed on the protein powder’s ingredients, but they’re often present during manufacturing. Heavy metals and other contaminants often find their way into protein powders when big brands grow ingredients on industrial farms with poor soil quality and reliance on chemical fertilisers and pesticides.
Protein powder is a largely unregulated market, so it’s up to the supplier to test for these contaminants. That’s why we source only the highest quality ingredients and batch test all of our products at the source to ensure they’re 100% safe.
Hormones can also be a much bigger issue when you opt for dairy-based powders containing whey and casein. Dairy products often contain traces of hormone such as rBGH (bovine growth hormone) which is bad for the fetus, so avoid whey protein powder while pregnant.
So, no whey. Can you have vegan protein powder when pregnant?
Yes, we recommend sticking to hemp protein, quinoa or pea protein, all of which are safe for pregnant women - our RITUAL: Vegan Protein is a combination of all three for a complete amino acid profile!
How much protein powder do I need when pregnant?
Each body is different, so every person’s recommended daily intake of protein is dependent on a range of factors, so you should consult your doctor about how much protein you particularly need.
After you’ve worked that out, the best way to fulfil your protein needs is through a balanced whole foods plant-based diet, high in beans, legumes, grains, nuts and seeds. You can then use a scoop of protein powder to fill any gaps in that daily intake if needed, but ensure the majority of your protein is coming from real food.
Are there any risks involved?
While protein needs are higher during pregnancy, you should also avoid consuming too much of it, as excessive protein consumption can have harmful effects on a developing fetus. If you drink too many shakes whilst also eating a lot of protein-rich foods, you can increase your risk of premature birth and impaired growth, so make sure you find out how much protein you should really be getting from a doctor, and track your intake.
There are also risks involved with possible contamination with heavy metals, like lead, arsenic, cadmium or mercury, because of the unregulated nature of the supplement industry. Always check that your supplements are third party tested and free from all possible contaminants.
What are the benefits of protein powders for pregnant women?
In general, if you’re having difficulties with energy or protein deficit, protein powders are an easy way to ensure you’re consuming enough protein to benefit fetal growth. For example, if you suffer from morning sickness and find it difficult to stomach actual food, adding some protein to a shake or smoothie is a good way to top up on protein! Fatigue is another symptom of pregnancy, so you might feel like whipping up a quick shake for an energy boost.
Pregnant ladies are safe to consume protein powder as long as you’re not replacing entire meals with shakes, and are only supplementing to fill in the gaps. One of the best protein powders while pregnant is our RITUAL: Vegan Protein. The simple blend contains nothing except pure, plant-based protein to give you a little protein boost.
‘Nutrition in pregnancy’ https://www.nutrition.org.uk/attachments/104_Nutrition%20in%20pregnancy.pdf
‘Effects of protein energy supplementation during pregnancy on fetal growth: a review of the literature focusing on external factors’ https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3827488/
‘Minerals and phytic acid interactions: is it a real problem for human nutrition?’ https://ifst.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1046/j.1365-2621.2002.00618.x
‘Artificial sweeteners induce glucose intolerance by altering the gut microbiome’ https://www.nature.com/articles/nature13793
‘Gestational diabetes’ https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/gestational-diabetes/
‘Maternal carbohydrate intake and pregnancy outcome’ https://www.cambridge.org/core/journals/proceedings-of-the-nutrition-society/article/maternal-carbohydrate-intake-and-pregnancy-outcome/28F8E1C5E1460E67F2F1CE0C1D06EE81
‘Effects of protein energy supplementation during pregnancy on fetal growth: a review of the literature focusing on contextual factors’ https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3827488/#:~:text=Balanced%20protein%20energy%20supplementation%20(up,fetal%20growth%20in%20certain%20contexts.