It depends. Protein powder will not affect breastfeeding but it may have other negative effects on your body.
Your body will make the exact composition of breastmilk your baby needs regardless of what you eat. There may be slight variations in macronutrients (proteins, fats, and carbs) because of your diet, but not large differences. Human breast milk is about 87-88% water, 7% carbs, 4% fats, and 1% protein (1).
So while protein powder will not have an effect on your breastmilk, not all protein powders are created equally and may have other negative effects on your body like kidney issues.
Why are you taking protein powder?
It’s important to understand why you are taking protein powder first.
You feel like you aren’t eating enough protein in your diet
If you feel like you aren’t eating enough protein in your diet, protein powder is definitely an easy and effective way to increase your intake.
Protein is an essential nutrient in the body for a variety of reasons.
But let’s look at how much protein you actually need to eat in a day (it might be lower than you think)! The Estimated Average Requirement (EAR) in the United States says lactating women should eat 1.05g of protein for every kilogram she weighs (although some research suggests more) (2).
Well we don’t usually do math in kilograms so let’s do a little *gasp* math! Take your weight in pounds and divide it by 2.2. Then multiply that number by 1.05 to get how many grams of protein you should be eating per day.
But to make the math a little more simple, the 2020-2025 Dietary Guidelines for Americans Recommends 71 grams of protein per day for lactating women overall (3) which you might already be getting without the powder.
But if you’re still having difficulty meeting your needs from just food, then using protein powder can help boost that up!
You started working out and want to build muscle
This is a common reason many women choose to use protein powder.
However, again, you may not need as much as you think. The American College of Sports Medicine says athletes need between 1.2-1.7 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight depending on the intensity of their activity (4).
Remember our little math equation above? In this case, you would take your body weight in pounds, divide it by 2.2, but this time multiply it by 1.2 (for moderate intense activity) all the way up to 1.7 (for very intense activity). This will give you the amount of protein to shoot for each day as an athlete.
Be careful though, consuming way more protein than you need (which is easy to do with protein powder) can have negative effects on your body which we go into more below.
You are using protein shakes in place of meals
Protein powders are great at helping boost your intake in addition to a regular healthy diet. But it’s not a great idea to rely on protein shakes or powders exclusively for meals in the long run because you end up missing out on other important nutrients that you get from eating a diet full of a variety of foods.
So it’s ok to do it every now and then, but we want to make sure we are eating a variety of foods in our diet to get all the important nutrients, not just protein.
You are trying to boost your supply
This is a common misconception and one I’m very passionate about.
So here’s the secret…There is no special food or drink that will cause your supply to increase!
Breast milk supply is increased by nerve signals and hormones. Every time you stimulate and stretch the nipple and empty the breast of milk either by latching your baby, pumping, or hand expressing, this sends nerve signals to the brain for your body to produce milk making hormones. The more times you do this, the more milk making hormones are sent throughout the body (5).
The opposite is also true. If your breast is full of milk for an extended period of time without being emptied, it sends a signal to your brain saying “Hey, we aren’t using all this milk so we need to make less next time”. This is why it’s important to breastfeed often.
So if you want to use protein powder, that’s fine, but don’t expect it to be the magic source that will increase your milk supply.
Easy to increase protein and calories in your diet if you need it
Quick on the go snack or meal for busy moms
Adds flavor to smoothies or drinks
Kidney Issues - Overloading your body on excess protein can strain your kidneys. In the long run, this can cause kidney issues (6) as well as lead to dehydration.
Extra Calories - Depending on the protein powder/drink, these can add a substantial amount of extra calories in your diet. Now if this is your goal, well that might be a pro. But if this is not your goal, just keep an eye out on how many scoops/drinks you have regularly.
Unnecessarily Expensive - Some protein powders are worth a pretty penny. Depending on why you are using protein supplements, there may be a less expensive alternative (I’ll list a few below).
Added ingredients - Not all protein powders and drinks are created equally. In fact, many protein supplements contain things like added sugar, sugar alcohols, caffeine, and other unnecessary ingredients.
What to look for in a protein powder if you use it.
There are two main types of protein powders, whey based and plant based. Whey is made from cow’s milk. So if you have an allergy or intolerance to cow’s milk or have a preference for plant based products, consider that when looking at a potential supplement.
Personally, I prefer supplements without a ton of added sugar so that is something I look for. Now the reason I say this is because if a protein powder is going to actually taste good, it’s probably going to have at least a little added sugar in it. So I just keep an eye to make sure that it’s not loaded with added sugar. Just for reference, we’re supposed to have less than 200 calories (50 grams) of added sugar per day (3).
Some protein powder may contain added caffeine. If your baby is less than a month old, premature, or medically fragile, avoid caffeine in your diet. After that, it is considered ok to have about 400mg caffeine daily while breastfeeding (7). So read the ingredient label carefully to see if this is an added ingredient.
Most protein powders are not organic. If that is an important factor for you, there are several options that you can choose from but you need to make sure it states “Organic” on the label.
This one goes without saying, but find one you actually enjoy eating. Personally, I can’t stand chocolate or strawberry protein powder but I enjoy vanilla.
One more thing. It is important to know that supplements (which protein powder is considered) are not regulated by the Food and Drug Administration (8). This means supplements are not tested for the accuracy of what is on the label. So I strongly recommend getting a powder that is tested by a third party independent lab.
Which protein powder is best for breastfeeding moms?
Remember above when I said there is no food or drink that will boost your milk supply? Well because of this, you don’t have to get a protein powder that is marketed directly for postpartum women. The reason I say that is because these brands can be much more expensive as they are targeting a very specific group of people ( which includes you) since they usually claim that their supplements will help boost supply.
But we know that nerve signals and hormones boost milk supply. Because of that, it’s ok to use whatever protein powder you feel comfortable with.
What you can use instead?
If you want to increase your protein intake throughout the day but don’t want to use protein powder, I’ve listed some high protein food options below you can include in your diet! These are also a cheaper alternative.
Nuts, nut butters, and nut powders ~ my personal favorite!
Beans and lentils ~ ok also one of my favorites, well maybe the whole list is my favorite
Bean dips like hummus
Meat, eggs, and seafood ~ maybe some obvious ones, but I thought I should include it anyway
Dairy ~ milk, cheese, yogurt, etc.
Tofu or edamame
Does it have to be a breastfeeding specific protein powder?
No, any protein powder that you are comfortable with is ok to use.
What is the difference between whey vs plant based?
Whey is a byproduct of the cheese making process. Therefore, if you have an intolerance or allergy to cow’s milk protein, avoid whey based powders. Plant based powders are usually made from soy, rice, or pea proteins.
Does it have to be organic?
No. Organic is not necessary but if you have a preference for organic, by all means get organic powder. The main downside to organic protein is simply the price. And considering protein supplements are already pretty pricey, this can add an extra layer to that.
Overall, protein powder is safe for lactating women. The main point is to understand why you are taking the protein powder in the first place as well as what is important to you in a protein powder before making any purchasing decisions.
There are some pros and some cons to protein powder depending on what your ultimate goal for using the supplement is.
And finally, remember that milk supply has everything to do with nerve signals and hormones and not special lactation supplements.
***Since protein powder is considered a dietary supplement, talk with your medical provider and dietitian before including any supplements in your diet as supplements may interfere with medical diagnoses and medications.
Interested in learning more about prenatal/postpartum nutrition and lactation? Join my FREE Facebook group: Mom and Baby Nutrition Support!