Guide for a Healthy Vegetarian Diet During Pregnancy

Pregnancy vegetarian diet

A vegetarian diet during pregnancy is healthy and safe for you and your baby. You can get all the essential nutrients you need for a healthy outcome if you make sure that you include sources of the specific nutrients that are harder to get in a vegetarian diet. Understanding the nutritional needs of all pregnant women, as well as the best plant sources of the essential nutrients, will help you plan a successful vegetarian diet.

Vegetarian Nutrition for Pregnant Women

Pregnant vegetarians and vegans have to pay special attention to getting enough protein, iron and especially vitamin B-12. This is because protein and iron are more challenging to get from plant foods alone and vitamin B-12 usually comes from animal sources.

The other essential nutrients needed during pregnancy for all women are:

  • Folic acid
  • Calcium
  • Vitamin D
  • Zinc
  • Essential fatty acids

Pregnant vegetarians who include sources of all essential nutrients will have no problem maintaining a healthy diet during pregnancy.

A Variety of Nutrient Sources

During pregnancy you can get all of the protein, carbohydrates, fats and essential fatty acids, and most of the calcium and vitamin D you need, by making sure you eat a healthy, well-planned, balanced diet that includes a variety of plant and fortified foods and plant oils. You will also get all the other vitamins and minerals that everyone needs to be healthy.

Pay special attention to adding up all the protein sources to make sure your vegetarian diet is providing the additional amount you need for your baby's growth.

Additional Vitamins and Iron

Add a prenatal vitamin that includes vitamin B-12 to cover that deficiency in plant-based diets. Prenatal vitamins also usually include zinc, vitamin D and calcium for women who cannot get the required amounts from their plant-based diets. Some prenatal vitamins include iron as well, or you might take a separate pill. This is important because iron is hard to absorb from plant sources.

In addition, vegetarians should include a folic acid supplement in their diets. Although folic acid is available in a number of plant foods, because of its importance in closure of the baby's spinal cord, vegetarians should include a folic acid supplement as recommended for everyone during pregnancy.

Food Additions to Your Vegetarian Diet

During your pregnancy, depending on how restrictive your usual vegetarian diet is, you can consider adding more food selections to your diet. For example, some women may want to add fish, eggs and milk during pregnancy. These are great sources of protein, calcium or vitamin D. If you choose, the best source of vitamin D is exposing your face, arms or legs to the sun for ten to fifteen minutes a day.

Adequate Calories and Weight Gain

Calorie needs increase during pregnancy to provide energy and additional nutrients for you and the baby. In addition, like meat eaters, vegetarians and vegans have to eat more calories to gain enough weight during pregnancy as recommended by the Institute of Medicine (IOM). You don't need additional calories during the first trimester but you will need about 340 more calories during the second trimester and 450 during the third.

Helpful Nutrients Reference Table

The following table provides an easy summary and reference for the specific essential nutrients that pregnant vegetarians have to focus on and includes good food sources and the amounts you need daily during pregnancy. Choosing a variety of foods daily from this list will give you all you need, together with your iron and vitamin supplements. Carbohydrates and fats, though not on the essential list, are included to provide a more complete handy reference.

Nutrient Amount/Day Food Sources
Protein 71 gm peas, beans, nuts, seeds, tofu, other soy, peanut butter, whole grains, vegetables, milk, cheese, eggs, fish

Iron

27 mg fortified cereals; whole grains legumes, spinach, nuts, seeds, molasses; prenatal vitamins
Vitamin B-12 2.6 micrograms fortified cereals and meat substitutes; milk, yeast; prenatal vitamins
Essential Fatty Acids 1.4 mg flaxseeds, walnuts, soybeans seeds, legumes, green leafy vegetables; flaxseed, soybeans, sunflower, safflower, canola and corn oils
Folic Acid 600 micrograms fortified cereals, dark green vegetables, beans, asparagus, oranges, peanuts; prenatal vitamins
Calcium 1000-1300 mg dark green leafy vegetables, broccoli, beans, sunflower seeds; fortified cereals, non-dairy milk and juices; yogurt, cheese, salmon; prenatal vitamins
Vitamin D 600 IU fortified juices and non-dairy milk, salmon, eggs; prenatal vitamins
Zinc 11 mg

legumes, nuts, whole grains, cereals; prenatal vitamins

Carbohydrates 175 gm whole grains, cereals, fruits, vegetables, legumes, nuts, seeds, non-dairy milk
Fats 60 gm (2000 calorie diet)

oils, nuts, seeds, peanut butter

Dietary Reference Intakes for nutrients for pregnant women in the U. S. and Canada are established by the Food and Nutrition Board and the IOM. For additional help, you can look up the nutrient content of a serving of a specific food by typing it into the search box on the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) National Nutrient Database website.

Helpful Food Groupings and Servings

A daily mix of whole grains, cereals, fruits, vegetables, and protein sources will provide the nutrients a pregnant vegetarian or vegan woman needs. This handy table is an example of a day's serving of foods for a 2000 calorie a day vegetarian diet plan. It is arranged in practical food groupings to help make it easier for you to make food selections and get enough of the nutrients you need during your pregnancy.

Speak to your doctor or midwife about the specific amount of calories you need during your pregnancy to figure out how many servings of each food group is best for you.

Foods Groupings Serving/Day Nutrients
Whole Grains, Breads, Cereals 9-11 folate, B vitamins, folate, iron, carbs, fiber
Vegetables 4-5 folate, iron, vitamins A and C, carbs, fiber
Fruits 4-5 vitamins A and C, carbs, fiber
Legumes, Soy, Milk, Protein substitutes 5-6 Protein, calcium, vitamin D, some carbs
Nuts, Seeds 1-2

Protein, carbs, fats

Importance of the Essential Nutrients

The nutrients that are essential in pregnancy have important roles for your baby and you. Add up your food and supplement sources to make sure you are getting enough of each to protect your baby and keep you healthy.

  • Folic acid (vitamin B9) is needed for normal cell division and growth and normal blood cells. Low levels during pregnancy cause anemia and failure of the spine to close over the baby's spinal cord (neural tube defects) causing neurologic problems in children.
  • Iron is needed primarily to make normal amounts of red blood cells in you and your baby. Iron deficiency and anemia is the most common nutrient deficiency in pregnancy.
  • Vitamin B-12 deficiency also causes anemia. It is needed to make red blood cells and for brain and other tissue development.
  • Calcium is needed for normal development of bones and teeth in your baby as well as for keeping your bones healthy.
  • Vitamin D works with calcium to develop you baby's bones and teeth.
  • Zinc has a role in cell division and growth and the immune system of the developing baby.
  • Protein is vital for normal growth of a baby's tissues in addition to your own needs.
  • Docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) is an essential fatty acid that is needed for brain and eye development of the baby and the placenta. Vegetarians have to get the fatty acid alpha-linolenic acid (ALA) from plant oils.

Pre-Pregnancy Planning

By the time many women realize they are pregnant, the baby is already exposed to nutritional deficiencies and toxins. Therefore, make a regular habit of eating a healthy, well-balanced diet to reduce the risks to your baby. Ask your doctor or a nutritionist for help in making sure you are getting all the essential nutrients from your vegetarian diet before you get pregnant.

Guide for a Healthy Vegetarian Diet During Pregnancy