Maintaining good health when vegetarian and pregnant

Pregnancy is a time in life when nutrition is most important. If done correctly, a vegetarian diet can provide all the nutrients for the mother and baby to be healthy.

Vegetarian diets are gaining popularity across the nation. With more and more people skipping meat at meals, maintaining a balanced diet is becoming more important for pregnant women and the health of their unborn children.

A person who is vegetarian chooses not to consume meat, poultry or fish. The number of people switching over to a vegetarian diet is growing. In fact, according to a poll conducted by the FDA in 2006 and the Harris Poll on behalf of the Vegetarian Resource Group in 2016, the population of vegetarians in the United States has increased by 3.2 million in the last 10 years. Of this population, slightly more are women, and the largest percentage is aged 18 to 34 years old. This is the age that most pregnancies occur.

Nutrient needs naturally increase in pregnant women. Some of these nutrients may be harder to obtain in women who have a vegetarian diet. According to “Nutrition Through the Life Cycle” by Judith E. Brown, common nutrient levels that are low in pregnant vegetarians are vitamins B12 and D, calcium, iron, zinc and omega-3 fatty acids. Recommendations from “Nutrition Through the Life Cycle” as well as the National Institute of Health are as follows.

Vitamin B12: Vitamin B12 is important for neurological growth. Most vegetarian sources are found in eggs, milk, cheese and fortified cereals. Pregnant women are recommended to consume 2.6 mcg daily.

Vitamin D: Vitamin D supports fetal growth by adding calcium to the bones and teeth. Vitamin D is almost exclusively found in animal products. Dairy products like milk and cheese contain vitamin D as well as some fortified foods. Intake of 15 mcg (600 IU) daily is recommended. Three cups of vitamin D-fortified milk a day is recommended, or exposing skin to the sunshine for 15 minutes twice a week during the summer months.

Calcium: Calcium is needed for bone growth in the fetus. Sources include milk, yogurt, cheese, kale and broccoli as well as fortified fruit juices, drinks, tofu and cereals. Pregnant women should consume 1000 mg of calcium a day with an additional 300 mg per day in last quarter of pregnancy.

Iron: Iron is important for the fetus’ growth. Sources include fortified cereals and bread, lentils, spinach, peas, nuts and raisins. 1000 mg of additional iron is needed during pregnancy. A 30 mg iron supplement taken daily after the twelfth week is recommended.

Zinc: Zinc is important for fetal growth. Sources include vegetarian baked beans, fortified cereals, yogurt, cashews, chickpeas, cheese and oatmeal. Pregnant women are recommended to consume 11 mg per day.

Omega-3 Fatty Acids (DHA and EPA): Omega-3 fatty acids are important for fetal brain growth. The most common source of omega-3 fatty acids is from fish; however vegetarian sources exist and include egg yolk, seaweed, DHA-fortified egg and DHA-fortified beverages such as orange juice. It is recommended that pregnant women consume 300 mg per day.

It is important to note that other nutrient needs increase during pregnancy such as iodine, folate and choline. Many prenatal vitamins meet the recommended dietary allowance. For ideas on how to eat a healthy vegetarian diet while pregnant, check out this Vegetarian Pregnancy Meal Plan. Check with your healthcare provider for individualized nutrient needs.

For more information on a healthy pregnancy and vegetarian diets visit the Michigan State University Extension website.

Did you find this article useful?