What to eat when eating for two: Protein

Perfect pregnancy snack (Flickr CC: AForestFrolic)

We are rarely counseled on diet and nutrition, whether pregnant or not. Partly this is a consequence of having very little face time with medical care providers–about 15 minutes on average according to one study–but also diet and nutrition counseling isn’t necessarily part of the care we receive from doctors or nurse practitioners. I’ve seen both medical doctors and alternative care providers, and what I didn’t learn from the doctors but did hear an earful about first from my herbalist, and then later from my own herbalism and midwifery studies, is that diet and nutrition are at the foundation of wellness (or as the old Hippocratic adage goes, “let food by thy medicine and medicine be thy food”).

This is so incredibly important for pregnant women, from the preconception period all the way through breastfeeding. Once pregnant, a healthy diet protects mother and baby from a variety of risks, from gestational diabetes to preeclampsia.

I’ll be looking at a variety of different aspects of our diets, but I figured I’d start with a big one. Protein provides the building blocks of making a baby, a placenta, and breastmilk. All of our body tissues are made up of protein, and it’s an important component to so many processes in our bodies.

How much protein?

There are various recommendations for protein intake. The Food and Nutrition Board of the National Academy of Sciences recommends 74 grams of daily protein. The Brewer’s Diet, which is recommended by the HypnoBirthing Institute, calls for 90 grams of daily protein, which specifically addresses the risk of preeclampsia, a dangerous and potentially lethal condition. Ultimately, each of us is different, our bodies are different, and our protein needs are different. We do know, however, that we need more protein in pregnancy. Aiming for 15-20 grams more than what we normally eat is a good goal, provided that you’re already getting sufficient dietary protein, or 75-100 grams daily, which can come either from meat or vegetarian sources.

However, getting that much protein is kind of a challenge. It means being sure to eat protein with every meal, and snacking on protein-rich foods between meals. The benefits aren’t just a nice growing baby, expanding blood volume, building a placenta, and keeping healthy, but it also helps with morning (ha! ALL DAY!) sickness.

Some of my favorite sources of protein include:

  • Hummus: Hummus is a combination of chickpeas, sesame seed paste (tahihi), olive oil, salt, pepper, and lemon. It’s incredibly easy–and cheap–to make at home, especially if you make your own tahini (see the link for a recipe). It’s also a complete protein, which means that it has the essential amino acids that we need, in just the right proportions. According to the USDA, 1/2 cup of hummus contains around 7 grams of protein, which makes it perfect for snacking.
  • Cheddar cheese: I’m a little obsessed with Grafton Village raw milk cheddar (yes, aged raw milk cheeses are safe, as is raw milk from USDA approved farms). A half cup of cheddar cheese has 16 grams of protein. It also contains calcium and iodine.
  • Cottage cheese: Ooh I’ve recently rediscovered how delicious cottage cheese is. Cottage cheese is a cultured food, which means that it promotes healthy bacteria in our guts. One cup has about 25 grams of protein.
  • Fermented soy: Miso (South River is wonderful) and tempeh are especially good. I’m not crazy about commercial tofu, in part for the same reason that I’m not into processed foods in general, but also because so much of the soy is now GMO. However, locally produced, small batch organic tofu is a great option. Also, added bonus, miso is a quick remedy for pregnancy nausea.
  • Liver: Yum! Liver seems to have just about everything a pregnant mom needs, it’s an amazing superfood, especially if you can source grass-fed organic meat. Studies in the 1950s suggested that Vitamin A is harmful to developing babies–which is true, when taken in supplemental form. Still, it set off a scare about eating liver, which is high in Vitamin A. More recent studies have shown that the food-based Vitamin A is safe. It’s not a food you need to eat every day, but it does contain tons of nutrients. 3.5 oz of liver has about 21 grams of protein. I *love* the way they make it in Alexandria, Egypt (“kebda iskandarani”).
  • Chicken: 1 cup has roughly 35 grams. Buy a whole chicken, roast it, eat it for days, then make a medicinal broth out of the bones.
  • Lentils: Here’s another fantastic vegetarian source of protein–1 cup has 18 grams.
  • Salmon: 3 oz contains about 22 grams. In truth, seafood is really fantastic during pregnancy, but be wary of mercury. Of the “big fish,” wild Alaskan sockeye salmon is a great option. Small fish are good, including herring, anchovies, sardines, etc, which accumulate less mercury in their bodies.
  • Protein is also in: beans (especially black beans), eggs (6 grams per egg), brown rice, corn (non-GMO), quinoa, sunflower seeds, nuts, peas, broccoli, and spinach (1 cup has about 20 grams). Be sure to soak your grains.

So, some awesome protein-rich meals off the top of my head:

  • Burritos with black beans, sour cream, brown rice, roasted corn, and spinach.
  • Roasted chicken, then: lentil and brown rice soup.
  • Brown rice mixed with quinoa, add crumbled tempeh, kale, corn, black beans…or basically anything at Life Alive. Top with a fried egg for extra points.
  • Salmon with spinach and mustard (I found this recipe on a Trader Joe’s package and it’s insanely good).
  • Hamburger with cheddar cheese…I should not be typing while hungry.


  • Yummy (Flickr CC: Amazing Almonds)

    Sprouted whole grain bread with peanut butter, banana, and raw honey

  • Peanut butter on an apple
  • Hummus and anything
  • Pecans tossed with dark chocolate and raisins
  • Drool: Raw cacao mixed with oats, chopped up dates, coconut flakes, peanut butter, melted butter, sweetened with maple syrup

Did you up your protein intake while pregnant? Did your doctor or midwife go into detail about how much protein you’re getting, and where it should come from? Did you notice any difference? I’d love to hear!


4 thoughts on “What to eat when eating for two: Protein

  1. I had some chicken liver early on in my pregnancy, then got worried and looked it up… and found a lot of “oh god don’t eat that! That much Vitamin A is associated with birth defects!!” …do you disagree?

    1. Jessica, such a great question. From what I’ve learned, the issue around Vitamin A in liver has been overblown. While liver can be high in retinol, the teratogenic effects aren’t comparable to isolated Vitamin A as it’s taken in supplements. Liver also contains a ton of healthy nutrients, so for women who like it and can get liver from really healthy and well-cared for animals, then I think it should be an option for them.

      Here’s a study from 1994 that looks at this issue, and recommends that the recommendations for liver and pregnancy be reconsidered.

      And here’s an article from the Weston Price Foundation on liver, which includes info on liver in pregnancy.

      Incidentally, Vitamin A in the form of betacarotene is very important during pregnancy and overall for women’s health. Thankfully, we can get plenty of that by eating our yellow and orange veggies.

      And last comment, while responding to this, all I could think about was the scene in Rosemary’s Baby where Mia Farrow eats the raw liver. Ick!

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