WHO recommendation on energy and protein dietary supplements during pregnancy

WHO recommendation on energy and protein dietary supplements during pregnancy



In undernourished populations, balanced energy and protein dietary supplementation is recommended for pregnant women to reduce the risk of stillbirths and small-for-gestational-age neonates.

(Context-specific recommendation)


Publication history

First published: November 2016

Updated: No update planned

Assessed as up-to-date: November 2016



  • The GDG stressed that this recommendation is for populations or settings with a high prevalence of undernourished pregnant women, and not for individual pregnant women identified as being undernourished.
  • Undernourishment is usually defined by a low BMI (i.e. being underweight). For adults, a 20–39% prevalence of underweight women is considered a high prevalence of underweight and 40% or higher is considered a very high prevalence (1). MUAC may also be useful to identify protein–energy malnutrition in individual pregnant women and to determine its prevalence in this population (2). However, the optimal cut-off points may need to be determined for individual countries based on context-specific cost–benefit analyses (2).
  • Establishment of a quality assurance process is important to guarantee that balanced energy and protein food supplements are manufactured, packaged and stored in a controlled and uncontaminated environment. The cost and logistical implications associated with balanced energy and protein supplements might be mitigated by local production of supplements, provided that a quality assurance process is established.
  • A continual, adequate supply of supplements is required for programme success. This requires a clear understanding and investment in procurement and supply chain management.
  • Programmes should be designed and continually improved based on locally generated data and experiences. Examples relevant to this guideline include:

–– Improving delivery, acceptability and utilization of this intervention by pregnant women (i.e. overcoming supply and utilization barriers).

–– Distribution of balanced energy and protein supplements may not be feasible only through the local schedule of ANC visits; additional visits may need to be scheduled. The costs related to these additional visits should be considered. In the absence of antenatal visits, too few visits, or when the first visit comes too late, consideration should be given to alternative platforms for delivery (e.g. community health workers, task shifting in specific settings).

–– Values and preferences related to the types and amounts of balanced energy and protein supplements may vary.


  • Monitoring and evaluation should include evaluation of household-level storage facilities, spoilage, wastage, retailing, sharing and other issues related to food distribution.
  •  Each country will need to understand the context-specific etiology of undernutrition at the national and sub-national levels. For instance, where seasonality is a predictor of food availability, the programme should consider this and adapt to the conditions as needed (e.g. provision of more or less food of different types in different seasons). In addition, a better understanding is needed of whether alternatives to energy and protein supplements – such as cash or vouchers, or improved local and national food production and distribution – can lead to better or equivalent results.
  • Anthropometric characteristics of the general population are changing, and this needs to be taken into account to ensure that only those women who are likely to benefit (i.e. only undernourished women) are included.
  • The GDG noted that it is not known whether there are risks associated with providing this intervention to women with a high BMI.



Pregnancy requires a healthy diet that includes an adequate intake of energy, protein, vitamins and minerals to meet maternal and fetal needs. However, for many pregnant women, dietary intake of vegetables, meat, dairy products and fruit is often insufficient to meet these needs, particularly in low and middle-income countries (LMICs) where multiple nutritional deficiencies often co-exist. In resource poor countries in sub-Saharan Africa, south-central and south-east Asia, maternal undernutrition is highly prevalent and is recognized as a key determinant of poor perinatal outcomes (3). However, obesity and overweight is also associated with poor pregnancy outcomes and many women in a variety of settings gain excessive weight during pregnancy. While obesity has historically been a condition associated with affluence, there is some evidence to suggest a shift in the burden of overweight and obesity from advantaged to disadvantaged populations (4).



The ANC recommendations are intended to inform the development of relevant health-care policies and clinical protocols. These recommendations were developed in accordance with the methods described in the WHO handbook for guideline development (5). In summary, the process included: identification of priority questions and outcomes, retrieval of evidence, assessment and synthesis of the evidence, formulation of recommendations, and planning for the implementation, dissemination, impact evaluation and updating of the guideline.

The quality of the scientific evidence underpinning the recommendations was graded using the Grading of Recommendations Assessment, Development and Evaluation (GRADE) (6) and Confidence in the Evidence from Reviews of Qualitative research (GRADE-CERQual) (7) approaches, for quantitative and qualitative evidence, respectively. Up-to-date systematic reviews were used to prepare evidence profiles for priority questions. The DECIDE (Developing and Evaluating Communication Strategies to support Informed Decisions and Practice based on Evidence) (8) framework, an evidence-to-decision tool that includes intervention effects, values, resources, equity, acceptability and feasibility criteria, was used to guide the formulation and approval of recommendations by the Guideline Development Group (GDG) – an international group of experts assembled for the purpose of developing this guideline – at three Technical Consultations between October 2015 and March 2016.

To ensure that each recommendation is correctly understood and applied in practice, the context of all context-specific recommendations is clearly stated within each recommendation, and the contributing experts provided additional remarks where needed.

In accordance with WHO guideline development standards, these recommendations will be reviewed and updated following the identification of new evidence, with major reviews and updates at least every five years.

Further information on procedures for developing this recommendation are available here.


Recommendation question

For this recommendation, we aimed to answer the following question:

  • For pregnant women in undernourished populations (P), do energy and protein dietary supplements (I) compared with no intervention (C) improve maternal and perinatal outcomes (O)?


Evidence summary

Evidence on the effects of balanced energy and protein supplements compared with no supplementation or placebo was derived from a Cochrane review (9). Twelve trials, involving 6705 women, were included in this comparison. Most data were derived from trials conducted in LMICs, including Burkina Faso, Colombia, Gambia, Ghana, India, Indonesia, South Africa and Taiwan, China. The balanced energy and protein supplements used were in various forms, including fortified beverages, biscuits and powders.

Maternal outcomes

The only maternal outcome reported for this comparison in the review, of those outcomes prioritized for this guideline, was pre-eclampsia. However, the evidence on this outcome, based on two small trials, was assessed as very uncertain.

Fetal and neonatal outcomes

Moderate-certainty evidence shows that balanced energy and protein supplementation probably reduces SGA neonates (7 trials, 4408 women; RR: 0.79, 95% CI: 0.69–0.90) and stillbirths (5 trials, 3408 women; RR: 0.60, 95% CI: 0.39–0.94), but probably has no effect on preterm birth (5 trials, 3384 women; RR: 0.96, 95% CI: 0.80–1.16). Low-certainty evidence suggests that it may have little or no effect on neonatal deaths (5 trials, 3381 women; RR: 0.68, 95% CI: 0.43–1.07). Low birth weight was not reported for this comparison in the review.


Additional considerations

In the review, mean birth weight (in grams) was reported and the findings favoured the balanced energy and protein supplementation group (11 trials, 5385 neonates; mean difference [MD]: 40.96, 95% CI: 4.66–77.26). This evidence was graded as moderate-quality evidence in the review (9).


The cost of balanced energy and protein supplements is relatively high. There may also be cost implications with respect to transport, storage and training.


In many LMICs, pregnancy outcomes and ANC coverage are worse among women who are poor, least educated and residing in rural areas (10). Many low-income countries still struggle with widespread poverty and hunger, particularly among rural populations (11). Findings from a study of antenatal food supplementation and micronutrient supplements in rural Bangladesh suggest that food supplementation interventions might be associated with better ANC adherence among women with less education but not among those with more education (12). Therefore, providing antenatal food supplements could help to address inequalities by improving maternal nutritional status and increasing ANC coverage among disadvantaged women.


Qualitative evidence indicates that women in a variety of settings tend to view ANC as a source of knowledge and information and that they generally appreciate any advice (including dietary or nutritional) that may lead to a healthy baby and a positive pregnancy experience (high confidence in the evidence) (13). It also suggests that women may be less likely to engage with health services if advice is delivered in a hurried or didactic manner (high confidence in the evidence) (13). Therefore, these types of interventions are more likely to be acceptable if the interventions are delivered in an unhurried and supportive way, which may also facilitate better engagement with ANC services. Qualitative evidence on health-care providers’ views of ANC suggests that they may be keen to offer general health-care advice and specific pregnancy-related information (low confidence in the evidence) but they sometimes feel they do not have the appropriate training and lack the resources and time to deliver the service in the informative, supportive and caring manner that women want (high confidence in the evidence) (14).


Providing balanced protein and energy supplements may be associated with logistical issues, as supplements are bulky and will require adequate transport and storage facilities to ensure continual supplies. Qualitative evidence from LMIC settings indicates that providers feel that a lack of resources may limit implementation of recommended interventions (high confidence in the evidence) (14).


Further information and considerations related to this recommendation can be found in the WHO guidelines, available at:



Implementation considerations

  • The successful introduction of evidence-based policies related to antenatal care into national programmes and health care services depends on well-planned and participatory consensus-driven processes of adaptation and implementation. These processes may include the development or revision of national guidelines or protocols based on this recommendation.
  • The recommendation should be adapted into locally-appropriate documents and tools that are able to meet the specific needs of each country and health service. Modifications to the recommendation, where necessary, should be justified in an explicit and transparent manner.
  • An enabling environment should be created for the use of this recommendation, including changes in the behaviour of health care practitioners to enable the use of evidence-based practices.
  • Local professional societies may play important roles in this process and an all-inclusive and participatory process should be encouraged.
  • Antenatal care models with a minimum of eight contacts are recommended to reduce perinatal mortality and improve women’s experience of care. Taking this as a foundation, the GDG reviewed how ANC should be delivered in terms of both the timing and content of each of the ANC contacts, and arrived at a new model – the 2016 WHO ANC model – which replaces the previous four-visit focused ANC (FANC) model. For the purpose of developing this new ANC model, the ANC recommendations were mapped to the eight contacts based on the evidence supporting each recommendation and the optimal timing of delivery of the recommended interventions to achieve maximal impact.


Research implications

The GDG identified these priority questions related to this recommendation

  • What are the effects, feasibility, acceptability and equity implications of healthy eating and exercise interventions in LMICs?
  • Can an intervention package with standardized guidance on nutrition be developed that is evidence-based, sustainable, reproducible, accessible and adaptable to different cultural settings?
  • Research is needed at country level to better understand the context-specific etiology of under-nutrition. Do alternatives to energy and protein supplements, such as cash or vouchers for pregnant women, or improved local and national food production and distribution, lead to improved maternal and perinatal outcomes?


Related links

WHO recommendations on antenatal care for a positive pregnancy experience

(2016) - full document and evidence tables

Managing Complications in Pregnancy and Childbirth: A guide for midwives and doctors

Pregnancy, Childbirth, Postpartum and Newborn Care: A guide for essential practice

WHO Programmes: Sexual and Reproductive health

WHO Programmes: Department of Nutrition for Health and Development

Maternal Health




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Citation: WHO Reproductive Health Library. WHO recommendation on energy and protein dietary supplements during pregnancy. (November 2016). The WHO Reproductive Health Library; Geneva: World Health Organization.