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Protein is essential for women's health

May 14, 2024 | Karen Lindsay, PhD, RDN
A white middle aged woman and a young Asian woman are smiling as they hug in an outdoor yoga class.

Women have unique nutritional needs that vary across their lifespan — from early adult years, through and after pregnancy, to menopause and beyond. Ensuring a balanced, nutrient-dense diet throughout each of these stages is vital to maintain physical and mental health and reduce the risk of illness and injury.

Protein, a long-overlooked macronutrient for women’s health, does not get the attention paid to carbohydrates and fats with respect to weight management or acknowledged for its crucial role in ensuring good health across their lifespan, according to several recent scientific studies.

Essential for life

Protein is, quite literally, the building block of life. It is not only a source of energy, but also is required to form muscles, tendons, hair, skin and nails. The essential amino acids in proteins also support the functioning of hormones and neurotransmitters.

Protein is comprised of 20 amino acids, nine of which are considered “essential” and can only be found in food because our bodies cannot synthesize them.

We also need additional amino acids when we are ill or during certain life stages such as infancy, early childhood and pregnancy.

Maintaining muscle mass

Women need sufficient protein to build lean muscle mass, strengthen bones and optimize the body’s metabolic rate. It’s also vital for maintaining mobility and function in all stages of life.

On average, women have less lean muscle mass than men, but they can benefit by building more muscle to support their health, especially as they age.

Women are at increased risk of developing osteoporosis after menopause due to declining estrogen levels, which promotes bone loss. To counter this, it’s important that women get regular resistance exercise in their early adulthood, along with adequate protein later in life to protect muscle mass and prevent bone loss.

Boosting metabolism

Protein also benefits our metabolism. First, it is a satiating nutrient, meaning that it keeps us feeling full longer, which can prevent overconsumption of less nutritious foods like refined carbohydrates and sugars to satisfy hunger.

Second, because protein is digested slowly when combined with whole grains or other complex carbohydrates, such as fruit or root vegetables, blood sugar levels are better balanced. Minimizing large swings in blood sugar levels can help prevent the development of type 2 diabetes and gestational diabetes during pregnancy.

How much do you need?

Protein requirements vary according to age, reproductive status and underlying medical conditions.

While U.S. dietary guidelines recommend that healthy adults get 0.36 grams of protein per pound of body weight daily, research suggests eating even more protein may be beneficial.

Some studies indicate that 0.7 to 1 gram of protein per pound of body weight is needed to support the growth and maintenance of lean muscle mass. Nor do those higher levels of protein cause adverse health effects in people with normal kidney function.

Women over age 65 with decreased bone density may require as much as 1.3 grams per pound to prevent the risk of fracture or to heal an existing bone break.

Pregnancy is another unique time when a woman needs more protein to support the developing fetus as well as the expansion of the uterus and placental tissues.

Just how much more protein is needed during pregnancy is under debate. Some emerging data suggest higher amounts than originally thought, as much as .68 grams per pound of body weight in the third trimester. The increased need for protein is related to the fetus’ need for the amino acid glycine, which helps form body tissues and a healthy cardiovascular system.

Best sources of protein

A variety of animal- and plant-based protein foods arrayed on a wood board.Lean and unprocessed animal proteins are excellent sources of high-quality, easy-to-digest nutrients, including various vitamins and minerals. They are essential for a healthy pregnancy and to support the baby’s brain and bone development.

Examples of protein-rich foods and the additional nutrients they contain include:

  • Red meat and poultry (iron, zinc)
  • Fish (omega-3 fats, iodine, selenium)
  • Dairy (calcium, iodine, choline)
  • Eggs (choline, vitamins A, D, E and K)

Plant-based proteins are great sources of fiber, unsaturated fats and B vitamins, which support heart health and promote healthy weight in women across their lifespan. These proteins are found in:

  • Legumes
  • Nuts
  • Seeds
  • Whole soy products (tofu, tempeh and edamame)

Finding the right balance

Plant-based proteins may not always be easy to digest. Moreover, the balance and absorption of amino acids from them may not supply the nutritional needs of all women, especially at times when protein demands are high — such as during pregnancy, recovery from illness or injury, and building or strengthening lean muscle mass to prevent osteoporosis.

Plant proteins are, however, a rich source of folate, which is critical before and during pregnancy to prevent neural tube defects in the developing fetus.

The amino acid glycine, needed at elevated levels during pregnancy, primarily comes from animal proteins, but it can also be found in seeds and legumes in lower concentrations.

Regardless of their stage of life, women can benefit from a diet containing a wide variety of both lean animal and plant-based proteins to enjoy optimal health. It also may be beneficial to speak with a registered dietitian or nutritionist who can help you determine your individual protein requirements and achieve a balanced and healthy diet.

For more information, you may contact our nutrition counseling team at the Susan Samueli Integrative Health Institute by calling 949-824-7000.

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