Vegetarian Pregnancy 101: How to Get the Right Nutrients

Eating for two without meat? Here's how to get the nutrition your growing baby needs during a vegetarian pregnancy.

No matter why you choose to go meatless—health, ethical reasons, or just how you feel—you may be wondering if being (or becoming) a vegetarian while pregnant is OK. The answer is a resounding yes.

You can be a pregnant vegetarian and still get all the protein, vitamins, minerals, and other nutrients you need. Furthermore, your pregnancy diet doesn't have to be terribly complicated; just make sure that you eat a variety of healthy fruits, vegetables, legumes, and nuts.

Plant foods should take center stage to help ensure an abundant supply of every essential vitamin and mineral needed to fuel you and your growing baby. Dairy products can help boost your intake of protein, calcium and vitamin D. Dairy foods also add vitamin B12, which comes only from animal or fortified foods. (To be on the safe side, you should also take a prenatal vitamin that contains 100 percent of the vitamin B12 and iron you need.)

Nutrition Basics

Follow these guidelines during your pregnancy to ensure that you and your baby get the proper nutrition:

Weight Gain: Women of normal weight should gain 25–35 pounds during pregnancy (28–40 pounds if you're underweight and 15–25 pounds if you're overweight; check with your doctor or midwife).

Calorie Counts: Add about 300 calories a day to your diet during your second and third trimesters.

What to Avoid: To reduce the risk of illness from the listeria bacterium, steer clear of uncooked, unpasteurized cheeses such as feta, brie, Camembert, and blue-veined or Mexican-style cheeses. Never eat raw or undercooked animal foods such as meat, sushi, seafood or eggs; avoid fish that may contain excessive mercury (swordfish, shark, king mackerel and tilefish); and limit shellfish and canned fish to 12 ounces a week. Avoid alcohol, tobacco, and medications that have not been approved by your doctor.

Vitamins: Take a daily supplement, as recommended by your physician, that supplies 100 to 150 percent of the Dietary Reference Intake for all vitamins and minerals. Consider calcium supplements if you can't make the quota of 1,000 milligrams a day.

Daily Dose: Focus on including these nutrients in your diet every day:

  • Calcium: 1,000 milligrams
  • Folate: 600 micrograms (400 micrograms folic acid from supplements, plus 200 micrograms from foods that contain folate)
  • Iron: 27 milligrams
  • Magnesium: 350 milligrams for women ages 19–30; 360 milligrams for women ages 31–50
  • Phosphorus: 700 milligrams
  • Protein:60 grams
  • Selenium: 60 micrograms
  • Vitamin A: 770 micrograms RAE (retinol activity equivalents)
  • Vitamin B6: 1.9 milligrams
  • Vitamin B12: 2.6 micrograms
  • Vitamin C: 85 milligrams
  • Vitamin D: 5 micrograms
  • Vitamin K: 90 micrograms
  • Zinc: 11 milligrams

Getting Enough Protein

This nutrient is vital for cell growth and development—yours as well as your developing baby's—and you need about 70 grams every day right now. Beans can provide much of what you need. "Beans are the magic bullet for vegetarians and vegans," says Dawn Jackson Blatner, R.D., the author of The Flexitarian Diet (McGraw Hill). "Along with lots of protein, beans provide iron and zinc." Zinc is also necessary for cell growth and normal fetal development.

To get the protein you need, simply replace animal products with any type of beans, including soybean products like tempeh and tofu; just keep in mind that experts advise limiting your soy intake to one or two servings daily during pregnancy. In recipes, substitute one-half cup of beans for every 3 ounces of meat.

And here's a bonus if you're concerned about putting on too much weight during your pregnancy: Beans are a low-calorie protein source: 1 cup of soybeans has 298 calories and 29 grams of protein; 1 cup of lentils has 226 calories and 18 grams of protein; 1 cup of pintos has 245 calories and 15 grams of protein, and 1 cup of firm tofu has 176 calories and 20 grams of protein.

Don't forget about nuts, too: These are also rich sources of protein (and healthy fats), as are low-fat dairy foods—milk, yogurt, and cheese.

A word of advice: Don't rely too heavily on cheese or faux burgers to replace meat in your diet. Why? Veggie "meats" are usually laden with sodium, and cheese is very high in saturated fat. "Vegetarian and vegan diets are perceived to have a 'health halo' around them," says Blatner. "But if you're not eating the right foods, these diets can be unhealthy, too."

Balancing Your Nutrients

Iron This mineral, which helps red blood cells deliver oxygen to the fetus, also protects you from anemia, a common problem during pregnancy even among meat eaters. According to Blatner, pregnant vegetarians and vegans need as much as 50 milligrams of iron daily. Besides beans, other vegetarian iron sources include iron-fortified cereals, prune juice, black-strap molasses, spinach and raisins.

To help your body absorb the iron contained in foods, eat vitamin-C- rich foods (such as red peppers, citrus fruits and strawberries) and sprouted grains along with them. "Sprouting decreases the compounds that make it more difficult for your body to absorb iron," Blatner explains.

RELATED: Iron and Pregnancy: Why You Need It, How Much, and How to Get It

Vitamin B12 This vitamin, which is required for proper red blood cell formation and neurological function, is most abundant in animal products, which makes getting enough of it a little tricky for vegetarians. Though there are a few nonmeat sources of B 12 (fortified breakfast cereals, for example), the ADA recommends that both vegans and lacto-ovo vegetarians (those who eat eggs and dairy products) take B-12 supplements to help them get the 2.6 micrograms daily needed during pregnancy.

Calcium & vitamin D Dairy products are chock-full of these baby bone-building nutrients, but vegans will have to turn elsewhere to get the 1,000 milligrams of calcium and 400 IU of vitamin D they need daily. "Vegans can eat dairy alternatives—like milk and yogurt made with soy and hemp—as well as orange juice," Field suggests, "but read labels to make sure they're fortified with calcium and vitamin D." Fortified tofu, seaweed, figs, collard greens and mustard greens are good vegan sources of calcium.

Omega-3 fatty acids Cold-water oily fish, such as salmon, are the main sources of these healthy fats, which enhance fetal brain and nervous system development. Good plant sources include algae, canola and flaxseed oils, walnuts and leafy green vegetables. Supplements are also safe during pregnancy. The recommended dietary allowance (RDA) for pregnant women is 1.4 grams daily, but up to 3 grams of fish oil daily is probably safe. Vegan omega-3 sup- plements are also available.

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