You are pregnant and you are a vegetarian or vegan. You’ve probably heard enough from some of your concerned relatives who question your dietary choices. Relax, a vegetarian or a vegan diet can give you and your baby all the nutrition you need, as long as you eat in a balanced and healthful way.
You probably know this distinctions, but for the sake of clarity, let’s set out some definitions. A vegetarian is someone who does not eat meat or seafood, but will eat dairy products and eggs. A vegan is someone who does not eat any foods that come from an animal source. There are some variations on these ideas, such as people who eat no meat, but will eat fish on occasion, or vegetarians who will eat dairy foods, but not eggs.
Being a vegetarian or a vegan is far more common than it once was. Most healthcare providers have become used to working with vegetarian or vegan patients and can offer advice on how to adjust your diet to meet the needs of your pregnancy.
The goal of any diet during your pregnancy is to give you and your baby the calories, protein, vitamins, minerals (including calcium and iron), and healthy fats that you both need. If you have been a vegetarian for a long time, you probably already know what foods supply you with the nutrition you need, but you may need to adjust your usual diet a bit to ensure you are getting enough of everything.
You need an extra 300 to 350 calories a day during your second and third trimester. Your doctor or midwife will tell you what an appropriate weight gain is for you.
Vegetarian sources of protein include eggs, low-fat dairy foods, beans, legumes, nuts, and soy products such as tofu. Good sources of calcium include low-fat dairy foods, beans, tofu and soy beans, whole grains, dark green leafy vegetables (such as kale, chard, and broccoli), and nuts and nut butters.
Green vegetables, beans, and fortified cereal products are good sources of iron. However, don’t drink coffee or tea with your meals because these can interfere with how your body absorbs iron from your foods. But orange juice or other beverages with vitamin C help your body absorb iron.
Your baby needs certain fatty acids–especially omega-3 fatty acids and DHA–in your diet to help with the development of the brain and nervous system. Fish is the best source of these fatty acids, but walnuts and flaxseed can supply some of your needs. Your doctor or midwife may suggest that you supplement with fish oil capsules. If you prefer, there are vegetarian omega-3 supplements made from sea algae.
Be aware of food safety during your pregnancy so that you minimize your risk of food poisoning. Wash all fresh vegetables and fruits thoroughly before you eat them and avoid all unpasteurized dairy products, including soft cheeses.
Tell your doctor or midwife that you are a vegetarian or vegan. Your doctor or midwife may choose to prescribe a different prenatal vitamin or additional mineral supplements to ensure you get enough or what you need each day. He or she may also want to check iron levels in your blood more often.
If you have any concerns about whether you are getting all the nutrition you need from your diet, ask your healthcare provider for a referral to a registered dietician.
The U.S. National Library of Medicine, part of the National Institutes of Health, has general information about vegetarianism and vegetarian diets. The American College of Nurse-Midwives has a fact sheet on vegetarian diets and pregnancy.