Here’s what pregnant women need to know about the protein in their food
Protein, be it in the form of non-vegetarian food sources like eggs, poultry, meats and fishes, or vegetarian sources like legumes, beans, tofu and nuts, is essential for the human body. Proteins are branched chains of amino acids known as building blocks of life. From building and repairing tissues, and making hormones and enzymes, to building bones, cartilage, and skin, proteins do more than you can imagine. Each human body cell is made up of proteins. Some of the amino acids are “essential”, which are not synthesized and have to be obtained from diet. The rest of the amino acids are synthesized in the body to build proteins. Proteins perform various functions and provide energy too.
Protein requirements for women
Protein requirements usually depend on your age, body weight, and health status. The recommended dietary allowance (RDA) of protein for adult, pregnant and lactating women are mentioned below:-
- 1g/kg/day for adult women
- 1.2g/kg/day for pregnant women
- Around 1.1g/kg/day for breastfeeding women
Protein and amino acids - Classification and types
Protein in your food is broken down to form amino acids, during digestion. There are a total of 20 amino acids that are used to synthesize protein. They are known as arginine, alanine, asparagine, cysteine, aspartic acid, glutamic acid, glycine, glutamine, histidine, isoleucine, leucine, methionine, lysine, phenylalanine, serine, proline, tryptophan, threonine, tyrosine, and valine.
Of these, there are 9 “essential amino acids” that the human body cannot synthesize, such as, histidine, lysine, isoleucine, leucine, phenylalanine, methionine, tryptophan, threonine, and valine. These essential amino acids are mainly derived from animal food sources such as milk, meat and eggs (high protein foods). Soy and quinoa are considered as complete protein-rich foods for vegetarians.
Amino acids are classified into 3 groups:-
However, depending on the availability of protein, quality of amino acids, and absorption rate in the body, proteins are further classified into 3 major food groups:-
Functions of protein
Protein is required for the structural and functional aspects of your body, and its main function is to build, strengthen, and repair or replace tissue, which could be:-
During pregnancy and lactation, as the body requires additional nutrients for the foetus’s growth and development, the protein in your diet becomes extremely important as it provides strength and stamina. For example, keratin is a structural protein that is required for your hair’s strength. Collagen and elastin provide support to connective tissues in the body. Most enzymes are proteins that act as catalysts to speed up chemical reactions in your body.
Sources of protein and impact on bioavailability
The protein in your food can be derived from both animal and plant sources. Some common sources are mentioned below:-
Animal proteins are more readily absorbed than plant protein, and have higher bioavailability. Bioavailability is the measure of the proportion of absorbed protein and how it is easily digested and can be used for protein synthesis in the body.
Protein requirements during pregnancy and lactation
It is vital to include an adequate amount of protein in your meals during pregnancy and lactation to meet the additional needs of the body. Protein boosts the development of breasts and uterine tissues. Protein also helps in the:
Protein, as mentioned above, is a building block of life, which meets various structural and functional needs of the human body. So, if you are expecting, protein will also ensure the proper growth and development of the foetus and fulfil the physiological needs of the mother as well. Hence, planning protein-rich meals is extremely important for all pregnant women, and more so if you are suffering from something like gestational diabetes.
- Essential amino acids, which cannot be made by your body and must be obtained from diet and supplements.
- Non-essential amino acids which are made from essential amino acids or during the normal breakdown of proteins during digestion.
- Conditional amino acids, which are required during an illness or stress.
- Complete proteins: These have all the essential amino acids, and are mainly present in animal foods like milk, meat, and eggs.
- Incomplete proteins: Foods that are considered as incomplete proteins have only one essential amino acid, so there is a lack of sufficient proteins in them. Examples are plant foods, such as beans, peas, and grains.
- Complementary proteins: These proteins contain two or more incomplete proteins that can be combined to supply complete proteins.
- Structural, like collagen
- Hormonal, like insulin
- Carriers, like haemoglobin
- Enzymes, like amylase
- Plant protein (vegetarian source) - Sources are lentils, chickpeas, green peas, tofu, hemp seeds, beans, soya beans, soy milk, amaranth, quinoa, sprouted grains, nuts, and other seeds.
- Animal protein (non-vegetarian sources - Sources are meat, fish, poultry, eggs, and dairy products.
- Development of new cells and tissues or organs of the foetus, and supports the rapid growth of the baby during lactation.
- Repair and maintenance of damaged tissues.
- Production of various enzymes, hormones for chemical reactions, and creation of antibodies for the baby’s immune system.
- Proper functioning of the muscles and supply of strength to the mother during delivery and
- Oxygen transportation to the foetus during pregnancy, and maintenance of lean tissue and proper milk supply during lactation.