You can safely eat a vegetarian diet during pregnancy if you take certain precautions.
Many vegetarian women worry about the effect their diet may have on their developing baby during pregnancy. However, with careful meal planning, there may be no need for concern.
“Vegetarian diets during pregnancy can provide the mother and baby with all the proper nutrients they need,” says Rachele Dependahl, RD, a dietitian at Cedars-Sinai Medical Group in Beverly Hills, Calif.
Dependahl, herself a pregnant “pescatarian” (a vegetarian who eats fish), worried that she would get carnivorous cravings during her pregnancy, but the opposite happened. “Meat has been more of a turnoff than it has been in the past,” she says.
Pregnancy and the Vegetarian Diet: The Pros
There are many positive aspects to maintaining a vegetarian diet during pregnancy. For instance, vegetarian sources of protein are easier on the kidneys. And being a vegetarian can help keep tooth decay — a common problem during pregnancy — at bay. In addition, vegetarian eating, in general, lowers the risk of the following conditions:
- Heart disease
- Type 2 diabetes
Another plus to being a vegetarian, says Martha K. Grodrian, RD, a nutrition therapist at Good Samaritan Hospital in Dayton, Ohio, is that “most vegetarian women eat fewer junk foods and a more nutritious diet.”
Pregnancy and the Vegetarian Diet: The Cons
While maintaining a vegetarian diet during pregnancy can be a healthy option, it requires a little more effort.
“It may take more work and effective meal planning to follow a vegetarian diet that is healthy during pregnancy,” says Grodrian. “In general, the more foods a vegetarian omits from the diet, the more difficult it is to meet nutrient needs.” However, dietary supplements may be able to fill the void.
A lacto-ovo vegetarian (one who also eats dairy and eggs) can get all the nutrients she needs for a healthy pregnancy through diet and a multivitamin/mineral supplement. A vegan, on the other hand, who avoids all animal products, will need to take supplements of vitamin B12 and iron and might want to take calcium, zinc, and vitamin D, too.
Pregnancy and the Vegetarian Diet: Nutritional Guidelines
Nutritional guidelines for pregnant vegetarians are the same as for non-vegetarian women who are expecting. “All pregnant women need additional iron, calcium, folate, essential fatty acids such as DHA (which can be obtained in a vegetarian form), zinc, protein, and 200 to 300 calories more than pre-pregnancy,” says Grodrian.
Specifically, pregnant vegetarians should consume the following:
- 6 to 11 servings per day of bread, cereal, rice, and pasta (choosing whole grain when possible)
- four to five servings per day of vegetables
- four or more servings of fruits
- eight servings of milk and milk alternatives (one cup of cooked kidney beans as a milk alternative, for instance)
- three to four servings of beans and bean alternatives
- two servings of omega-3 fats for DHA (found in flaxseed oil, walnuts, tofu, and omega-3 fortified eggs, among other places)
Fats, sweets, and junk food should be eaten sparingly, and pregnant women should be careful to avoid the following foods:
- Unpasteurized soft cheeses (such as brie, Camembert, and feta) and unpasteurized milk, because they carry the risk of listeriosis (a food-borne illness caused by bacteria).
- Raw vegetable sprouts and fresh unpasteurized fruit and vegetable juices, which can contain bacteria like E. coli and salmonella.
Even though it may take a little more effort, following a vegetarian diet while pregnant can be healthy. “My pescaterian diet has been easy to sustain,” says Dependahl. “I have not faced any challenges, because I love eating vegetables, tofu, eggs, dairy, and fish.”