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Looking to power up your pregnancy with extra energy and enhanced support for your growing babe? Protein is your new best friend.

If you’ve ever wondered how what you’re eating each day affects your babe-to-be, consider this: The protein in your diet is providing the building blocks for all of baby’s developing tissues. His organs, skin, hair and almost every cell need protein to grow.

But protein will play an important part in keeping you healthy and energetic over the next nine months, too. In fact, our bodies use protein for every critical body function, says Tara Ostrowe, MS, RD, who provides lifestyle nutrition counseling in New York City. During pregnancy, that includes helping your breast and uterine tissues grow as well as increasing your blood supply.

Whether you’re an avid meat eater or a strict vegetarian, there are plenty of convenient foods (hello, peanut butter) that allow you to meet your protein needs every day. So get those knives and forks (and spoons!) ready, protein is going to play a big role in your performance as a mom-to-be.

The power of protein
At one of your early prenatal appointments, your doctor likely asked, “Are you getting enough protein in your diet?” And if your mind flashed to weightlifters slurping down supplemented shakes, it’s time for a refresher in high school biology. Let’s review what protein is and why you need it.

Natalia Stasenko, MS, RD, CDN, founder of Tribeca Nutrition in New York City, explains: Protein is a big molecule consisting of chains of amino acids. Our bodies are constantly manufacturing proteins (using the protein in our diet) to replace ones that have broken down.

“Proteins are essential to our bodies for a number of reasons, from participating in a big number of chemical reactions as enzymes to optimizing immune response,” says Stasenko. “Getting enough protein in a diet is very important because we cannot synthesize all the amino acids our bodies need to build protein molecules.”

Not surprisingly, during the later months of pregnancy, it’s important to eat more protein each day to support your needs and those of your growing baby.

Fuel up
So just how much protein do you need? The first trimester is easy, as your protein requirements are the same as they were prepregnancy. For the average woman, that’s around 46 grams each day. As your bump gets bigger, however, your daily protein needs grow, too.

By the second trimester, women need about 1 additional gram of protein per kilogram of weight, or about 0.5 grams per pound, notes Stasenko. This typically equates to around 71 grams of protein each day, or about 25 additional grams on top of what you were consuming prepregnancy.

That amount might seem like a lot (consider that one large egg provides approximately 6 grams of protein), but adding an extra serving or two of protein to each meal and snack throughout the day will get you there. Plus, the increased intake will help sustain your energy by preventing spikes in blood sugar levels, adds Ostrowe.

“Protein slows digestion and the release of glucose in the blood,” Stasenko explains. “This may prevent the midmorning and midafternoon crashes that [can] occur with carbohydrate-only meals.”

The strong stuff
To meet your daily quota, look for protein-rich foods at your local supermarket. You may even be surprised to find that many of the items you commonly have in your shopping cart are packed with protein. Ostrowe’s favorites include Greek yogurt, cottage cheese, eggs and chicken.

If you practice a vegetarian or vegan diet, turn to nuts and nut butters, lentils, chickpeas, soybeans, tofu and quinoa for protein.

Fish is also a wonderful source of protein during pregnancy, notes Stasenko. But steer clear of mercury-rich shark, swordfish, king mackerel and tilefish. Raw or undercooked meat and unpasteurized dairy foods should also be avoided, she warns.

If morning sickness or dietary aversions inhibit your ability to get enough protein from whole food sources, smoothies, protein shakes and protein bars are acceptable substitutes.

Don’t be deficient
If you’re following a healthy nutrition plan and filling your plate each day with protein-rich foods like the ones listed above, protein deficiency won’t be an issue. But keep in mind that pregnancy is not the time to worry about losing weight or restrict your caloric intake.

A lack of protein in your diet is extremely dangerous and could result in poor muscle and joint development for baby, not to mention brain damage, muscle deformities, birth defects or miscarriage.

Without enough protein, moms-to-be suffer, too, as they risk feeling fatigued and lightheaded. Pregnancy is hard enough without these problems, so do yourself a favor: Pack a daily punch of protein throughout your pregnancy to promote the health and wellness of both you and your baby-to-be. P&N