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Protein and Its Role in Health and Immunity – During Pregnancy and Lactation

Updated: Apr 20, 2022

Think Nutrition First

First 1000 days refers to the period from conception up to 2 years of a child's life. It offers a critical window of opportunity to shape the baby's short-term and long-term health. It is a period of maximum growth and accelerated development of the brain, digestive system and immune system. Nutrition during this critical phase plays a significant role in influencing the development of key organ systems and their functions in the body. Evidence suggests that good nutrition during this period can influence the likelihood of developing conditions such as obesity, allergies, heart disease and diabetes in later life.

A woman’s nutritional status both before conception and during pregnancy is important for the health of the mother and baby. This in turn improves the overall health of the mother and the baby and pregnancy outcomes. The mother is the sole source of nutrition for the developing fetus during pregnancy.

A woman should eat a healthy and balanced diet to nourish the growing fetus, and to build optimal maternal body reserves in preparation for breastfeeding. Key nutrients essential for pregnant women are energy, protein, vitamin A, C, B12, folic acid, iron, iodine, and calcium. Furthermore, DHA – docosahexaenoic acid content of a mother’s diet has also been associated with positive cognitive development and function.

Adequate maternal dietary energy and protein intake during pregnancy are essential for positive pregnancy outcomes. Protein is one of the most important nutrients. Pregnant and breastfeeding women need to consume almost 50% additional protein to support fetal growth and expansion of maternal tissues. As per the latest Indian Council of Medical Research recommendations, 55g protein per day must be taken by a sedentary woman, whereas the need in a pregnant and breastfeeding woman is quite higher. It is about 82 g during pregnancy and 79 g for breastfeeding.

Protein is not only necessary for healthy growth and development of the fetus, but also for accretion in maternal tissues. Proteins help to build and maintain tissue and muscle mass. It is also essential for extra blood production and promotes healthy weight gain during pregnancy.

In addition to pregnancy, protein requirements are higher during the breast feeding period. Breast milk is the sole source of nutrition for infants up to 6 months of age; hence maternal diet needs to provide nutrients in the right quantity and quality to meet the nutritional requirement of the infant. One of the key nutrients which impacts breast milk production is protein. Dietary protein not only supports an adequate supply of breast milk but also has an impact on the overall growth and development of the infant. It also helps in synthesizing hormones, enzymes, and antibodies.

Additionally, protein also plays a vital role in the development of the immune system of both the mother and fetus. During pregnancy, changes in reproductive hormones and immune systems during pregnancy collectively make them more susceptible to certain infections. Studies have indicated pregnant women are more susceptible to COVID-19, and special attention should be paid to the selection of drugs that are both effective for maternal diseases and friendly to the fetus.

Suboptimal maternal nutrition during pregnancy may result in Intra Uterine Growth Restriction and higher chance of Low Birth Weight and Small-for-Gestational-Age babies. Currently, it has been reported that close to 75% of pregnant and lactating women are not meeting their protein requirements. It is imperative that the diets of these women are evaluated, and that they are given appropriate recommendations to meet their daily protein requirements.

Rich sources of protein need to be included in day to day diet. Some of the vegetarian sources include whole pulses and cereals, nuts, milk and milk products, whereas non-vegetarian sources of protein are eggs, chicken, meat and sea food. Since meeting the protein and other nutrient requirements through diet alone may be challenging on a day to day basis, nutritional supplements could be considered to bridge the gap of these vital nutrients from the diet.

‘Healthy bodies make healthy babies’ and hence nutrition needs to be given paramount importance, especially in the case of pregnant and breast-feeding women.

International Journal of Gynecology and Obstetrics 131 S4 (2015) S213–S253


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