All pregnant people need to eat a healthy diet. Healthy eating during pregnancy can help support your health and the development and growth of your baby.
However, you may have some concerns if you are vegetarian while pregnant. The good news is that it is possible to follow a vegetarian and vegan diet during pregnancy. It all comes down to adequate nutrition.
“Vegetarian and vegan diets are safe to continue during pregnancy, as long as you take your prenatal vitamin, consume a balanced diet and avoid processed foods,” said Sarah Edgerton, DO, an OBGYN with Banner Health.
Vegetarians enjoy a diet of grains, pulses (edible seeds from a legume plant, such as beans, lentils and peas), nuts, seeds, fruits and vegetables, with some choosing to include eggs and dairy products (lacto-ovo vegetarians). Vegans typically eat only plant-based foods. However, some people, for example, pescatarians or flexitarians, may eat different combinations of foods.
Many vitamins and minerals you need during pregnancy are more easily found in meats and other animal products. However, it is still possible to get them elsewhere if you are vegan or vegetarian.
Read on to learn more about how to be a pro at pregnancy while still being vegetarian and vegan.
Eat nutrient-dense foods
A vegetarian diet can meet the needs of your pregnancy as long as you take care to include protein, iron, vitamin B12 and calcium-containing foods.
Protein is an essential nutrient that helps build cells and make hormones for your growing baby. If you are an ovo-vegetarian or lacto-ovo vegetarian, you may already get what you need from protein sources like eggs and yogurt.
“For vegetarians, proteins can also come from beans, nuts, seeds and peas,” Dr. Edgerton said. “Tofu, nut butter and hummus are also good sources of protein.”
Your blood volume increases by nearly 50% during pregnancy to support you and your developing baby. Iron is required to produce more red blood cells. This additional need can put vegetarians, vegans and even those who eat red meat at risk for low iron.
While eggs, nuts, seeds and beans also contain iron, it is not easily absorbed by the body as the iron found in meat. Therefore, you also need to eat iron-enriched or fortified foods, which can be found in whole grain cereals and bread and green leafy vegetables like spinach and kale.
“It’s important to have whole grain in your diet, but limit processed carbohydrates and sugars,” Dr. Edgerton added. “Look for the words ‘whole grain’ on the product label.”
Vitamin B12 is only found in foods of animal origin, so vegans or vegetarians are at risk of a vitamin B12 deficiency. This vitamin is needed to form blood cells and nerve function and for normal brain development in the baby.
Only small amounts of B12 are typically needed, but pregnancy and breastfeeding can rapidly reduce any B12 your body has stored. A deficiency has been linked to neural tube defects and an increased risk of preterm labor.
Good sources of vitamin B12 for vegetarians are vitamin B12-fortified plant milk, fortified cereals, fortified meat substitutes and nutritional yeast. Your health care provider may also recommend supplemental B12 and folic acid (another important nutrient).
Dairy foods are the best source of calcium, which is very important for your developing baby – especially during the third trimester. It’s also important for your bone health during and after pregnancy.
The best calcium sources for vegans or vegetarians to eat during pregnancy include yogurt, plant-based milk or cheeses, green, leafy vegetables, tofu and calcium-fortified orange juice.
Other vitamins that are important during pregnancy include:
Supplement with vitamins when necessary
A high-variety diet can help you meet your nutritional requirements during pregnancy. However, talk to your health care provider if you think you need more critical nutrients.
Eat extra calories in your second and third trimesters
You may worry about eating enough calorie-dense foods as a vegan or vegetarian. While you are eating for two, you typically don’t need to eat any extra calories until your second or third trimester.
“During the second and third trimesters in particular, your body is working hard to help support baby's growth,” Dr. Edgerton said. “To accomplish these changes, your body will need about 350 extra calories per day in the second trimester, and 450 extra calories per day in the third trimester.”
If you need help determining the diet that will work best for you, talk to your health care provider.
Avoid raw or undercooked foods
Pregnant people are at an increased risk for food poisoning, so play it safe and avoid honey, raw or sprouted nuts and grains, unpasteurized milk or cheese, and raw or undercooked eggs or soy products.
In our blog on pregnancy foods, you can read more about what to eat, avoid or have in moderation during pregnancy.
It’s okay to make an exception during pregnancy
Hormones can do crazy things to your body. They can even create food cravings, like for meat.
It is perfectly OK to temporarily switch to eating meat. You can return to strictly plant foods after your baby arrives. Or focus on eating your favorite protein-packed foods and see if those help with cravings.
Most people do not need to worry about their diets as much as they think. Many of the nutrients and minerals we need can be found in our food. The critical aspect of a healthy pregnancy, whether vegetarian, vegan or meat eater, is to lead a healthy lifestyle.
If you have questions about your diet, talk to your health care provider. They can advise you on how to ensure you get everything you and your baby need during pregnancy.
Have questions about your diet during pregnancy?
Schedule an appointment with an OBGYN.