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Pregnancy nutrition: Protein

what is protein


The importance of protein during pregnancy

With a vital supporting role for every cell in the body, protein is essential for you and your baby. Learn how many portions to eat as part of a well-balanced pregnancy diet, and why oily fish is an excellent source.

What is protein and why is it important during pregnancy?

Proteins are found in every cell of the body, making up skin, muscles, hair, fingernails and all other tissues. They provide structure to cells and help them function properly, as well as helping cells repair themselves1.

During pregnancy, the protein you eat helps your baby grow normally while contributing to other important areas of their development, including2:

  • Growth and repair of new and damaged tissues
  • Making antibodies for their immune system
  • Making hormones and enzymes
  • Helping muscles function properly
  • Transporting oxygen through their blood

Your own need for protein increases during pregnancy too, with a healthy intake needed to support the various changes your body is going through.

“A healthy intake of protein during pregnancy supports your baby’s growth and helps their rapidly multiplying cells to function normally.”

Which contains more protein per portion?

red lentils

The building blocks of good health

A good supply of protein during pregnancy enables your baby’s cells to function well from the start. All future growth and development then has a strong foundation to build upon, throughout infancy, childhood and beyond.

One of the first benefits you’re likely to see from a healthy protein intake is a healthy birth weight. A healthy birth weight has been linked to a reduced risk of developing diabetes or becoming overweight later in life3.

Foods that contain protein

With a vital supporting role for every cell in the body, protein is essential for you and your baby.

Getting the right amount of protein to support you both

The Reference Nutrient Intake (RNI) of protein for adults is 0.75g per kilogram bodyweight per day, plus an additional 6g/day for pregnant women. So for an woman weighing 60 kg, they will need: 60 x 0.75g/d = 45g protein a day and 51g if they are pregnant3. But it’s not just the quantity that matters. It’s also important to eat a variety of protein sources because different proteins provide different amino acids.

Good sources of protein include5:

Because these foods are frequently eaten in the average western diet, most people in the UK get enough protein without giving it special attention. Unless you are vegetarian or vegan, you probably don’t need to adjust your intake to meet your increased needs. People who choose to avoid animal products can obtain many of the essential amino acids by eating a variety of fruits and vegetables.

A good rule of thumb is to include a portion at every meal so that you’re getting 2-3 portions per day5. A portion is generally equivalent to the size of your palm.

A particularly beneficial source of protein is oily fish, such as sardines and salmon, which have high levels of brain-building fatty acids. Try to eat 2 portions per week, but no more than that because of the potential mercury they can contain6.

Good protein sources and their protein content7:

One portion is equivalent to:

  • 100g of chicken
  • 140g of fish
  • 2 medium eggs
  • 3 tablespoons of seeds or nuts

Next Steps

Add these protein-rich foods to your shopping list:

  • Meat
  • Poultry
  • Fish
  • Eggs
  • Dairy products
  • Seeds and nuts
  • Beans and lentils

View references

Hide references

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1. British Nutrition Foundation. Protein [Online]. 2012. Available at: [Accessed September 2016]

2. Wu G. 2004. Maternal nutrition and fetal development. The Journal of Nutr 2004; 134(9)2169-2172.

3. British Nutrition Foundation. Nutrition requirements [Online]. 2015. Available at: [Accessed September 2016]

4. British Nutrition Foundation. Protein [Online]. 2012. Available at: [Accessed June 2014]

5. NHS UK. Fish and shellfish [Online]. 2015. Available at: [Accessed September 2016

Last reviewed: 9th September 2016
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