A high protein–low-carbohydrate diet during pregnancy can cause intra-uterine growth restriction. However, its impact during pregnancy on maternal, umbilical and fetal plasma amino acid (AA) profiles is unknown. A maternal high-protein (30 %)–low-carbohydrate (HP-LC) diet was compared with isoenergetic standard (12·1 % crude protein; ST) and low-protein (6·5 %)–high-carbohydrate (LP-HC) diets fed to nulliparous pregnant sows to examine changes in AA concentrations in maternal, venous and arterial umbilical and fetal plasma in mid and late pregnancy. At 64 and 94 days of pregnancy (dp), sows underwent Caesarean section, and maternal, umbilical and fetal plasma samples were collected. The HP-LC diet mainly affected maternal plasma AA concentrations. Plasma concentrations of Ile and Val were increased and those of Ala, Glu and Gly were decreased (P ≤ 0·05) in HP-LC compared with ST sows at 64 and 94 dp. The LP-HC diet decreased fetal plasma Glu concentration compared with the ST diet at 94 dp. Substantial AA catabolism was reflected by increased (P ≤ 0·05) maternal and fetal plasma urea concentrations with the HP-LC compared with the ST and LP-HC diets at 94 dp. Fractional placental extraction of Val was higher whereas those of Ala, Gln and Glu were lower in the HP-LC compared with the ST sows at 64 and 94 dp (P ≤ 0·05). Reduced fetal mass at 94 dp was accompanied by reduced fetal extraction of Lys and Pro in the HP-LC group (P ≤ 0·05). In conclusion, a maternal HP-LC diet during pregnancy altered maternal plasma composition of many AA and modified placental AA extraction to compensate for imbalanced maternal nutrient intake.