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Protein Requirements Throughout Different Stages Of A Woman’s Life

It’s no secret that a woman’s body experiences a number of significant changes throughout her lifetime. What may be less known, though, is why protein consumption is so necessary for each of these different stages.

The perks of protein are often discussed by those in the health and fitness world, but usually in a context that’s specific to men and muscle mass gains. In this article, I’ll dig into women’s protein requirements for optimal well-being throughout various important times in their lives.

Why Protein Is A Powerhouse

Let’s start with the basics. Protein is an essential nutrient that every human body requires. It is the building block for cells, tissues, and hormones that regulate numerous bodily functions. An essential macronutrient, protein also makes up the enzymes that power many chemical reactions and the hemoglobin that carries oxygen in our blood.

Additionally, protein is a critical part of our immune system. The most important cells in our defense system—T-cells, B-cells, and antibodies—rely on protein. And having a protein deficiency has been directly linked to a poor-functioning immune system

Another job of protein is to provide the primary material for connective tissues. It also keeps hair and nails healthy and robust, and plays a significant role in bone health.

Finally, protein increases metabolism, supports weight management, decreases heart disease risk, and may help to prevent obesity. 

Protein and Women

Clearly, protein is a powerhouse. So why do many women often shy away from it?

You may have been surprised to read above that protein helps with weight loss. After all, protein is often discussed in terms of helping to increase muscle mass, which is typically associated with weight gain. As a result, women looking to lose weight often skip protein or decrease their daily intake. However, as the study linked above shows, adequate protein can and does help women to maintain a healthy body weight!

A related misconception is that protein is only necessary if one is looking to build muscle or become a bodybuilder. Considering what we know about how central protein is in most of our bodily functions, there’s plainly no truth to this myth. Of course, bodybuilders and those looking to build muscle may have a higher protein intake, but this is often because people’s protein needs are directly linked to their activity levels. 

For reference, know that the USDA recommends that men and women eat a baseline of about 0.8 grams of protein for every kilogram of their body weight. (One pound equals 2.2 kilograms.) To put this into perspective, a woman who weighs roughly 130 pounds and is not active would need to eat a baseline of 45 to 46 grams of protein a day. That said, her needs may increase at various stages of life for several reasons. 

Protein Requirements During Pregnancy 

One of the increased nutritional demands a woman experiences during pregnancy is an increased need for protein. Protein is key for the development of the baby’s skin, hair, fingernails, muscles, and brain. It also helps balance fluids and maintain normal blood pressure in the mother’s body, supports the growth of breast and uterine tissues, and contributes to other beneficial processes like boosting the mother’s blood supply. 

Additionally, protein helps both Mom and Baby produce healthy cells and tissues, as well as repair damaged cells and tissues, by supporting the production of various hormones, enzymes, and antibodies and helping transport oxygen through the blood. 

Upping protein intake is especially important during the second and third trimesters, when the infant grows rapidly, yet research has shown that many pregnant women do not consume enough protein. The American Pregnancy Association recommends pregnant women consume between 75 to 100 grams of protein per day. If you do not eat meat, there are several other ways to ensure your body and baby receive the protein they need. Dairy, beans, eggs, or soy products are other protein sources. 

Tips for Incorporating Protein into Your Pregnancy Diet 

A good rule of thumb is for pregnant women to include a portion of protein about the size of their palm at every meal. To ensure both Mom and Baby consume the variety of nutrients they need—including vitamins, minerals, and amino acids (the building blocks of various proteins)—it’s key to incorporate different protein sources regularly. 

Obvious choices include nutrient-dense, lean cuts of meat or poultry, such as chicken breast without the skin (which is lower in saturated fats). Eggs are another excellent source of protein.

Fish, especially oily fishes like sardines and salmon, contain high levels of brain-building fatty acids. During pregnancy, try to eat up to two portions of these per week, but no more because of the potential mercury some fish can contain. 

Dairy products, such as cheese and milk, are also good sources of protein that provide other vital nutrients like calcium, phosphorus, and vitamin D. Plant-based foods like red lentils, chickpeas, kidney beans, baked beans, and tofu can also help pregnant women consume more protein, as well as a variety of other nutrients.

Protein Requirements While Breastfeeding 

Similar to pregnant women, breastfeeding women provide their babies with the nutrients needed for growth and development. 

During this life phase, women should maintain a healthy daily protein intake to ensure their body can retain muscle mass while producing nutrition for a growing infant. Protein provides amino acids that help protect against diseases and boost both mother and child’s immune systems, aid in digestive functions for both, provide the necessary building blocks for the infant’s gut development, and help both Mom and Baby properly utilize other nutrients.

During the first couple of months postpartum, the protein needs of the mother and infant are at their highest. During this time, protein is being used to support the mother’s recovery from birth and aid in the child’s growth and neurological development via breast milk. Try to consume roughly 100 grams of protein per day while breastfeeding—and know that going above and beyond that won’t hurt, especially in those early days!

Also, keep in mind that breastfeeding mothers need additional calories overall to produce milk. Breastfeeding alone requires an additional 500 to 700 calories per day, so aim to add 300 to 400 calories to your diet. Upping your protein is an ideal way to do this. Note that this extra protein (particularly fish, eggs, dairy, and lean meats) provides ample amounts of iodine and choline, which women need more of in the first year postpartum.

Practical Tips for Increasing Protein Intake While Breastfeeding 

Breastfeeding can be a stressful time in a woman’s life. The lack of sleep and constant demand for milk can make it hard to find time to cook meals. Having convenient and healthy protein-rich snacks can help ensure busy moms get the protein needed for themselves and their babies. 

Fresh fruit smoothies with protein powder, no-bake peanut butter cookies, Greek yogurt, slices of deli turkey with cheese, hard-boiled eggs, trail mix, and plain nuts (like almonds and cashews) all make for great, easy-to-grab snacks. 

Don’t forget that ample hydration and overall nutrient intake are critical to health and well-being during this time. 

The Importance of Protein Throughout Perimenopause

As a woman enters her perimenopausal years, the hormonal changes she experiences have a metabolic impact. She may begin to notice adverse symptoms, such as changes to her body composition and hot flashes, and face an increased risk for diseases like osteoporosis and heart disease. 

While much focus is placed on the effects of menopause, the truth is that most of these changes (like loss of muscle and bone density) take place before menopause due to shifts in estrogen levels. After a woman reaches 30, her body begins to lose three to eight percent of muscle strength, mass, and function per decade. This loss is one of the main reasons for disability in older women.  

A new study confirms this, suggesting that lifestyle interventions aimed at managing these problems are most valuable during perimenopause. Understanding this can help women take the necessary steps to avoid adverse symptoms.

That’s where protein comes in. First of all, the hormonally-induced tissue protein breakdowns perimenopausal women experience mean they require more protein. Unmet protein needs can exacerbate declines in muscle as the body uses muscle tissue for energy. In their fourth or fifth decade, women’s bodies also become less capable of using protein effectively, which also makes eating extra more important. 

Read More: 9 Easy Ways To Increase Your Protein Intake

Although adequate protein intake is vital for optimal bone health during her younger years, it is equally important for helping maintain bone strength as a woman ages.

Plus, women experience a fall in energy expenditure at this stage of life, meaning that the amount of energy the body produces to maintain typical bodily functions declines significantly. Eating more protein can help compensate for such changes. 

Incorporating More Protein During Perimenopause

While perimenopause will be different for every woman, changing your diet to prioritize protein will help support your body and mind. I recommend that all women over 35 increase protein intake and incorporate strength training into their weekly exercise regimen. Aim for two to 2.4 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight, which comes out to at least one gram of protein per pound of body weight. (Think 130 grams of protein for a 130-pound woman.)

Focusing on lean protein sources and plant-based options is vital for ensuring your body is performing at its optimal levels. Implementing balanced meals to support hormonal health during this time is essential. 

Diets that are high in protein with a balanced intake of vegetables, complex carbs, and healthy fats are ideal for supporting hormonal health, warding off unwanted symptoms, and helping women’s bodies function optimally during this time. Focus on lean and plant-based protein sources, as well as broccoli, cauliflower, and healthy fats such as avocados and olive oil.

Protein Requirements During Menopause and PostMenopause

During the menopausal and postmenopausal years, a woman’s body needs the building blocks of protein to enhance her overall quality of life. Menopausal and postmenopausal women begin to see a rapid decline in muscle mass, so slowing such progression becomes paramount to support overall health and longevity. Unsurprisingly, research has linked low protein intake to increased risk of sarcopenia (a.k.a. significant muscle loss).

Read More: 6 Workout Tips For Improving Health Postmenopause

Meanwhile, a woman’s health initiative found that a higher protein intake (roughly a 20 percent increase) lowered the risk of frailty and improved physical function. 

Special considerations for protein intake should be taken amongst menopausal and postmenopausal women. Adapting protein intake to changing nutritional needs can help her stay active and healthy for longer. 

Women in these phases of life should continue to prioritize two to 2.4 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight (that’s 130 to 142 grams per day for a woman who weighs 130 pounds). Shoot for the lower end on less active days and the higher end on days of heavier exercise or activity. If you struggle to pack that much protein in (it’s a lot!), consider adding a protein powder to your routine.

It’s worth emphasizing that this is not the time to forgo exercise. Instead, pair increased protein intake with a greater focus on weight-bearing activities, such as resistance training. The combination of a protein-packed diet and daily exercise can help address or even prevent any bone health or muscle mass concerns that could arise otherwise. 

Protein Needs for Women Who Consistently Exercise

Regardless of what life stage she’s in, any woman who consistently exercises should increase their intake to at least 1.2 to two grams of protein per kilogram of their body weight. (That’s 71 to 118 grams per day for a woman who weighs 130 pounds.)

This is because protein provides the amino acids necessary to build and repair muscles. You see, as a woman actively trains, her muscles are broken down. If the body does not receive the protein necessary to repair these muscles, they continue to break down. Exercising—especially lifting or doing other forms of strength training—with inadequate nutrition can lead to significant issues. 

Read More: 7 Scientifically-Proven Benefits Of Strength Training

Proper nutrition and protein intake can assist and even enhance recovery after exercise and promote muscle growth. As protein is also known to support wound healing, it can also help to reduce the risk of injury. 

Using a calculator can help you figure out the appropriate amount of protein based on your age, body, and activity levels. 

Tips for Maximizing Protein Intake During Training

The best way to give your body a boost of protein when training or exercising regularly is by incorporating lean-cut meats, low-fat dairy products, and nuts (which are perfect on-the-go snacks). Remember to also include one or two portions of fish (ideally from wild-caught seafood) in your weekly meal prep. Eggs, lentils, and other plant-based substances are also worthy sources. A quality protein powder can come in handy if you need to up your intake in a flash.

The Bottom Line

Protein is a vital macronutrient at all stages of a woman’s life. Providing essential building blocks for the majority of her bodily functions, a lack of adequate protein could increase a woman’s risk for chronic diseases as she ages. 

Consuming various protein sources throughout the day during each life stage is more beneficial than focusing on one type of protein at each meal. Incorporating protein powders, animal protein sources, and plant-based proteins are all ways to achieve the goal of increased protein intake. 

Focusing on how your body reacts to these different sources and adapting as needed over the years will empower you to live a full life of good health. 

Dr Perkins

Dr. Perkins is a board-certified OB/GYN with extensive expertise in global maternal health, female reproductive health, contraceptive care, and minimally invasive surgery. In addition to working with patients at her medical practice, she is a Major in the United States Army Reserve and an award-winning scientific researcher. Through her functional, holistic approach to health, she aspires to help women feel their best in mind, body, and spirit.

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