What Happens When Pregnant Women Eat More Animal Protein

Are high-protein diets during pregnancy healthful or harmful? That question was answered about 40 years ago in the infamous Harlem Trial of 1976: a “randomized controlled trial of nutritional supplementation pregnancy, in a poor black urban population in the United States.” The study, which I discuss in my video The Effect of Animal Protein on Stress Hormones, Testosterone, and Pregnancy, “was begun when protein was commonly assumed to be deficient in the diet of the poor.” Had researchers actually analyzed their diets before they started, they would have realized that this wasn’t true, but why let facts get in the way of assumptions? So, the researchers split poor black pregnant women into three groups, each receiving one of the following treatments: (1) an extra 40 grams of animal protein a day, which is essentially a couple cans of Ensure, (2) an extra 6 grams of animal protein, or (3) no extra protein. Then they sat back and watched what happened. The high-protein group suffered “an excess of very early premature births and associated neonatal [infant] deaths, and there was significant growth retardation” in the babies who survived. More protein meant more prematurity, more deaths, and more growth retardation, which you can see reflected in the chart at 1:00 in my video.

What’s more, animal protein intake during pregnancy has been associated with children becoming overweight later in life and getting high blood pressure. The “offspring of mothers who reported eating more meat and fish had higher systolic blood pressure” in adulthood. This was part of another failed dietary intervention trial in which mothers were advised to eat a pound of meat a day. The increased weight gain and high blood pressure may be due to the obesity-causing chemical pollutants in the meat supply, as I’ve discussed in my video Animal Protein, Pregnancy, and Childhood Obesity, or the animal protein-induced rise in the growth hormone IGF-1. Or, it could be due to a steroid stress hormone called cortisol.

As you can see in the chart at 2:01 in my video, a single meal high in animal protein can nearly double the level of the stress hormone in the blood within a half hour of consumption, much more than a meal closer to the recommended level of protein. When subjects are given a meal of crab, tuna fish, and cottage cheese, the stress hormone level shoots up. If they’re instead given some barley soup and a vegetable stir-fry on rice, the stress hormone level goes down after the meal, as you can see at 2:27 in my video. Imagine eating meat-fish-dairy meals day after day. Doing so “may chronically stimulate” our stress response axis “and increase the release of vasoactive hormones” that could increase our blood pressure. And, all that extra cortisol release has been linked to increased risk for elevated blood levels of insulin, triglycerides, and cholesterol.

When men on a high-protein diet, “such as meat, fish, poultry, egg white,” were switched to a high-carb diet of bread, vegetables, fruit, and sugary junk, their cortisol levels dropped about a quarter within 10 days. At the same time, their testosterone levels shot up by about the same amount, as you can see at 3:09 in my video. High-protein diets suppress testosterone. That is why, if men eating plant-based diets begin to eat meat every day, their testosterone levels go down and some estrogens actually go up, and that’s why bodybuilders can get such low testosterone levels. It’s not the steroids they’re taking. If you look at natural bodybuilders who don’t use steroids, there is a 75 percent drop in testosterone levels in the months leading up to a competition. Testosterone levels were cut by more than half, which is enough to drop a guy into an abnormally low range, as you can see at 3:47 in my video. It’s ironic that they’re eating protein to look manly on the outside, but it can make them less and less manly on the inside. And, from an obesity standpoint, in general, a drop in testosterone levels may increase the risk of gaining weight and body fat. What does cortisol have to do with weight?

There’s actually a disease caused by having too much cortisol, called Cushing’s syndrome, which can increase abdominal obesity. Even in normal women, though, chronic stress and chronic high cortisol levels can contribute to obesity. What’s more, if they’re pregnant, high-meat and low-carb diets may increase cortisol levels in the moms, which can lead to inappropriate fetal exposure to cortisol, which, in turn, can affect the developing fetus, resetting her or his whole stress response thermostat and leading to higher cortisol levels in later adult life. This can have serious, life-long health consequences. Every maternal daily portion of meat and fish was associated with 5 percent higher cortisol levels in their children as much as 30 years later, though green vegetable consumption was found to be protective. Higher meat consumption, such as three servings a day compared to one or two, was associated with significantly higher cortisol levels, but eating greens every day appeared to blunt some of that excess stress response, as you can see at 5:12 in my video.

As well, the adult children of mothers who ate a lot of meat during pregnancy don’t only have higher stress hormone levels, they also appear to react more negatively to whatever life throws at them. Researchers put them through the Trier Test, which involves public speaking in front of a panel of judges, following by a live math exercise. You can see in my video at 5:36 a chart comparing the stress hormone responses in those whose moms ate less than two servings of meat per day, about two servings a day, or about two to three servings a day. Note that before the test started, the cortisol levels of the two groups eating less meat started out about the same, but their exaggerated cortisol response was laid bare when exposed to a stressful situation. The real-world effects of this are that after that sort of test, when people are given their own private snack buffet with fruits and veggies versus fatty, sugary, comfort foods like chocolate cake, guess who may eat less of the fruits and veggies? Those who have high chronic stress levels. “Cortisol has been implicated as a factor in motivating food intake” even when we aren’t really hungry.

It’s no surprise then that a woman’s animal protein intake during pregnancy may lead to larger weight gain for her children later in life—and maybe even for her grandchildren. “Remarkably, recent evidence suggests that the long-term consequences of adverse conditions during early development may not be limited to one generation, but may lead to poor health in the generations to follow, even if these individuals develop in normal conditions themselves.” Indeed, the diet of a pregnant mother may affect the development and disease risk of her children and even her grandchildren. Ultimately, these findings may shed light on our rapidly expanding epidemics of diabetes, obesity, and heart disease.


Whoa, there was a lot to unpack! Rather than break it up, since so much of it was tied together, as you could see, I compiled everything into this one, heftier piece. You may want to read this a second time and watch the video to absorb it all.

For more on how a woman’s diet during pregnancy can affect her children, see Maternal Diet May Affect Stress Responses in Children and Animal Protein, Pregnancy, and Childhood Obesity.

Protein is such a misunderstood nutrient. For more information, check out:

In health,
Michael Greger, M.D.

PS: If you haven’t yet, you can subscribe to my free videos here and watch my live presentations:

Pomegranates Put to the Test for Prostate Cancer

The pomegranate “has been revered through the ages for its medicinal properties”––so much so that it’s been used as a symbol for some medical organizations. A fruit seems to me a better representation of health than the American Medical Association’s snake on a stick.

The pomegranate is thought to be beneficial for a wide range of diseases, including several types of cancer, cardiovascular disease, and rheumatoid arthritis. Evidently even the cannibals love it as it improves the color of “kid meat.” The researchers were talking about baby goats, but the title of their study did make me do a double-take!

Most of the attention over the last decade has focused on pomegranates and prostate cancer. In vitro studies have shown that pomegranate extract can suppress the growth of prostate cancer cells in a petri dish by up to 95 percent. As you can see in my video Pomegranate vs. Placebo for Prostate Cancer, there is no real difference between what normal prostate cells look like under a microscope with a little or a lot of pomegranate extract; it doesn’t seem to have much of an effect on healthy cells. However, prostate cancer cells are decimated by pomegranate extract—at least in a petri dish, but what about in a person? If these results translated to the clinic, it could be dramatic, but we first need to try it out in people.

“Primary management of prostate cancer…consists of either radical surgery or radiation therapy.” Despite this, “a significant number of patients relapse and ultimately develop metastatic disease.” Even after radical prostatectomy, the cancer comes back in about one-third of the patients, as evidenced by rising prostate-specific antigen (PSA) levels. At that point, the treatment options are limited as the prostate has already been removed. The next step is essentially chemical castration, or hormonal ablation. Just like breast cancer can thrive on estrogen, prostate cancer can thrive on testosterone. We can try to wipe out testosterone, but that can have such negative side effects that anything we can do to delay that would be good. 

So, what about plants? Men in Asia appear to have the lowest prostate cancer rates in the world, up to ten times lower than men in North America. Is this simply because of genetics? No. When Japanese individuals move to the United States and start living and eating like us, their breast and prostate cancer rates shoot right up toward ours. It could be because of what they start eating more of: animal products, which are the strongest risk factor for prostate cancer worldwide on a country-by-country basis. Or, it could be because of what they’re eating less of in the United States, namely their traditional low-fat, high-fiber, generally plant-rich diet with soy products and green tea. So, did the researchers put the cancer patients on a plant-based diet? No, they just had them drink a cup of pomegranate juice every day. Why? Because the study was funded by a pomegranate juice company.

In the three years leading up to the study, participants’ cancer was steadily growing, as measured by the increase in their average PSA levels. Once they started the juice, their tumors continued to grow, but it looked like they were growing slower. In contrast, Dean Ornish and his colleagues got an apparent reversal in early prostate cancer growth with a plant-based diet and other healthy lifestyle changes. Indeed, PSA didn’t just go up slower—it trended down. And, when dripping the blood of the men on prostate cancer cells growing in a lab, the blood serum of those eating healthfully suppressed cancer growth nearly eight times better, whereas the blood of the men on the pomegranate juice suppressed cancer growth by only about 12 percent. Still, to see any effect from drinking a cup of juice a day is pretty impressive.

The problem is that there was no control group in the pomegranate juice study. We could say the patients acted as their own controls, before and after. It’s probably not just a coincidence that their tumors started growing slower right when they started the juice. But, a drug trial tried to do the same thing—treat men with recurring prostate cancer after surgery or radiation. In the drug group, tumor growth slowed in 55 percent of the men. A pretty effective drug, right? Well, the sugar pill worked 73 percent of the time. The placebo effect can be so powerful that it may slow cancer growth. This is why we need placebo-controlled trials. Maybe tricking people into drinking pomegranate-flavored Kool-Aid would have had the same effect. We don’t know until we put it to the test.

Finally, researchers did a randomized, controlled trial of pomegranate juice for prostate cancer, and the daily pomegranate intake had no impact. What do they mean, no impact? Twenty-five percent of the cancer patients appeared to shrink their tumors as soon as they started drinking the pomegranate juice, but 35 percent shrunk their tumors not drinking pomegranate juice. So, any effect appears just to be a placebo. It’s the same story with pomegranate extract pills: They seemed to work until they went head to head with sugar pills and fell flat on their face.


I love pomegranates! Unfortunately, the juice and extracts look no more promising today than when I produced my video Is Pomegranate Juice That Wonderful?.

For some foods that may actually affect prostate cancer progression, see:

In health,
Michael Greger, M.D.

PS: If you haven’t yet, you can subscribe to my free videos here and watch my live, year-in-review presentations:

Meat Can Cause Stress Hormone Levels to Rise and Testosterone levels to Drop

A critique of the scientific validity of the dietary advice in Men’s Health magazine discovered nuggets claiming meat can give men “a testosterone boost,” but we’ve known for a quarter century that a meal with that much fat can drop testosterone levels by nearly one-third within hours. In fact, a significant drop of both free and bound testosterone in the bloodstream occurs within just one hour of it going in one’s mouth, whereas a low-fat meal of mostly carbs has no such effect. Based on in vitro studies on the effects of fat on testicle cells in a petri dish, researchers suspect fat in the blood may actually suppress testosterone production in real time. If you feed people lots of eggs and meat, including fish and poultry, and then switch them to a diet with bread, fruit, vegetables, and sugar—but about the same amount of fat—all their testosterone levels go up. Even more importantly, however, all their levels of cortisol, a stress hormone produced by our adrenal glands, go down.

Having low stress hormone levels is good, because high cortisol levels may “strongly predict cardiovascular death” in men and women both with and without pre-existing cardiovascular disease. In fact, this may help explain “death from a broken heart,” the heightened heart attack and stroke risk in the immediate weeks following the loss of a spouse. Higher cortisol levels days, months, or even years after losing someone you love may increase cardiac risk and reduce immune function. And, the rise in stress hormone levels from the loss of a spouse, a bump of about 50 points, is less than the bump you get by eating high-meat diet.

Cortisol may also help explain why those who are depressed tend to put on abdominal fat. The reason obesity around the middle is associated with elevated cortisol secretion may be that abdominal fat kind of sucks it up, so the accumulation of fat around our internal organs may be an adaptation by which our body deals with excess stress.

These spikes in stress hormone levels every time we eat a lot of meat may not just affect our health, but that of our children, which I discuss in my video Maternal Diet May Affect Stress Responses in Children. “Substantial evidence now suggests that maternal diets of high protein density have adverse effects on the fetus.” For example, back in the 1960s, an experiment was performed on pregnant women in Motherwell, Scotland, in which they were told to eat a high-meat diet in hopes of preventing preeclampsia, a disease of pregnancy. It didn’t work. In fact, the lowest preeclampsia rates I’ve ever seen were among women eating strictly plant-based diets—only 1 case out of 775 pregnancies. Preeclampsia normally strikes about 5 percent of pregnancies, so there should have been dozens of cases, suggesting a plant-based diet could alleviate most, if not all, of the signs and symptoms of this potentially serious condition. So what did happen when pregnant women went from eating about one daily portion of meat to about two portions a day? Mothers who ate more meat and fewer vegetables during pregnancy gave birth to children who grew up to have higher blood pressures.

“One explanation proposed for the adverse effects of high-meat/fish consumption is that this may increase maternal cortisol concentrations, which, in turn, affect the developing fetus,” resetting his or her stress hormone thermostat to a higher level. But, we don’t know until we put it to the test. And indeed, researchers found higher blood cortisol levels “in both the sons and daughters of women who had reported higher meat/fish” consumption, about a 5 percent increase for every meat serving per day. Such diets may present a metabolic stress to the mother and kind of reprogram the adrenal axis of their children, leading to lifelong hypercortisolemia, elevated levels of stress hormones in the blood. This may help explain why every daily portion of meat during late pregnancy may lead to a 1 percent greater fat mass in their children by the time they reach adolescence. So, this could increase the risk of their children becoming obese later in life and thus has “important implications for public health and in terms of prevention of obesity.”

What if they’re already born? We may be able to bring down children’s stress hormone levels with similar dietary changes, but this is just baseline stress hormone levels. Do children of mothers who eat more meat during pregnancy also have exaggerated responses to life stressors? Researchers put them through a stressful challenge—public speaking and mental arithmetic—and then measured their cortisol responses. If their mom ate less than two servings of meat/fish a day while she was carrying them, they got little shots of stress hormones from their adrenal glands. Those whose moms ate more really got stressed out, and those whose moms ate the most—17 or more servings a week, which is more than 2 servings each day—appeared to be really quaking in their boots. In a way, you are what your mother ate.


Want more craziness from Men’s Health magazine? Check out my video Changing a Man’s Diet After a Prostate Cancer Diagnosis.

Here are some other popular videos about eating healthfully during pregnancy:

In health,
Michael Greger, M.D.

PS: If you haven’t yet, you can subscribe to my free videos here and watch my live, year-in-review presentations: