Vegetarian / Vegan Diet During Pregnancy

November 12, 2010

Vegetarian and vegan diets need special consideration during pregnancy.  Our article “Nutrition During Pregnancy” gives general nutritional guidelines about what to eat while you are pregnant, but there is more you need to know if you are a vegetarian or vegan. 

Can I still eat a vegetarian or vegan diet while I’m pregnant?

Yes, you absolutely can.  Vegetarian and vegan diets are healthy for you and your baby during pregnancy as long as you make sure to get enough calories (2,000—2,500 per day) and enough of all the required nutrients.  It’s important to let your doctor know that you are a vegetarian or vegan.      

What if my doctor isn’t familiar with vegetarian or vegan diets? 

While most doctors are knowledgeable about general nutrition, they may not be as familiar with vegetarian or vegan diets.  You may want to keep a food diary for several days so your doctor can better understand your diet and then decide whether or not you need supplements.  If you have specific concerns and questions, it may be helpful to work with a registered dietician or nutritional health coach.  

What are the specific nutritional concerns for vegetarians and vegans?

Vegetarians and vegans need to make sure they are getting enough protein, calcium, iron, Vitamin B-12, Omega-3 fatty acids, Vitamin D, zinc, and iodine in their diet during pregnancy. 

Below we’ve listed each of these nutritional requirements, the amount you need, and good food sources.  Keep in mind the amount of nutrients in a serving size depends on the food, so be sure to read labels.  Remember also that serving sizes are much smaller than most people think.  One serving is equal to just a ½ cup of pasta or 2 tablespoons of nuts!  

Protein:  You need 71 grams per day.  Good sources include beans, lentils, tofu, tempeh, nuts, nut butters, seeds, eggs, leafy green vegetables, whole grains (especially quinoa), milk, yogurt, and cheese. 

Calcium:  You need 1200 milligrams per day.  Good sources are broccoli, kale, collard greens, soybeans, yogurt, milk, cheese, fortified soymilk, figs, almond butter, tahini, and fortified orange juice.

Iron:  You need 30 milligrams per day, which is much more than you need when you are not pregnant.  Iron deficiency anemia is a concern for all pregnant women, and iron supplements are routinely recommended during the second and third trimesters.  Foods rich in iron include whole grains, green leafy vegetables, dried fruit, prune juice, cashews, mushrooms, and fortified breads. 

Vitamin B-12:  You need 2.6 micrograms per day.  This vitamin is naturally found only in foods that come from animal sources.  So if you are vegan, you must take a supplement or make sure you are eating fortified foods.  Good sources are fortified cereals, fortified soymilk, fortified meat substitutes, nutritional yeast, milk, cheese, yogurt, and eggs.

Omega-3 fatty acids:  You need 300 milligrams of DHA, which is one of the Omega-3 fatty acids, per day.  Good sources include flaxseed, canola oil, tofu, soybeans, and walnuts.

Vitamin D:  You need 400-800 international units (IU) per day. Good sources are sun exposure for 25 minutes three times per week, fortified cereal, fortified soymilk, and fortified milk. 

Zinc:  You need 11 milligrams per day.  Good sources include whole grains, legumes, soybeans, tofu, yogurt, hard cheeses, nuts, and seeds.

Iodine:  You need 150 micrograms, or a little more than a ½ teaspoon of iodized salt, per day.  Other good sources are garlic, soybeans, asparagus, seaweed, spinach.

Which supplements should I take?

Talk to your doctor about supplements.  You may need supplements for calcium, iron, vitamin B-12, and vitamin D.  Your doctor can also help you choose a prenatal vitamin that includes high amounts of these nutrients.  We recommend that you talk to your doctor before taking herbal supplements during pregnancy.  

Pregnant women can rest assured that they can continue to eat vegetarian and vegan diets.  As long as you eat 2,000—2,500 calories per day and meet the nutritional requirements listed above, your vegetarian or vegan diet will be healthy for both you and your baby.