There are many benefits of plant-based eating. But is it safe to exclude meat when you’ve got a whole-grain bun in the oven? Registered dietitian Julia Zumpano, RD, LD, shares her tips for being a pro at pregnancy while still being pro-plants.
Vegetarianism and pregnancy: Protein is the weak link
Vegetarian diets are nutritional powerhouses because they are:
- High in fiber.
- Loaded with vitamins and minerals.
- Low in saturated fat and cholesterol.
The tricky part of eating vegetarian while you’re pregnant, explains Zumpano, is that your protein needs increase during those months.
Zumpano says the average pregnant woman needs 71 to 75 grams of protein a day during pregnancy. That number can be even higher due to a number of factors, including if you’re carrying multiples. If you want to eat vegetarian during pregnancy, it’s best to see a dietitian for a personal assessment to know your specific protein needs.
“It’s definitely doable to eat vegetarian while pregnant — I did it myself — but you need to plan your meals around protein to ensure you’re getting enough, which may also include protein supplements.”
Which type of vegetarian diet is superior during pregnancy?
A vegetarian diet typically cuts out meat, but there is a lot of grey. Some vegetarian diets include eggs and dairy. A vegan diet has no meat, dairy or eggs. A pescatarian diet is plant-based but includes fish. Is one type better during pregnancy?
“If someone is open to less restrictive eating during pregnancy, I try to guide them that way because it can be easier to fill the nutritional requirements,” says Zumpano. “For example, if someone is vegan but open to dairy during pregnancy, I would encourage that shift so they can get their protein and calcium needs met by food sources.”
If you’re set on a vegan pregnancy or don’t want to adjust your eating habits, you’re still good. You’ll just need to use a supplement or a vegetarian product like tofu to meet the nutritional needs of you and your baby.
Nutritional requirements of a vegetarian diet during pregnancy
All pregnant people, whether or not they eat meat, need to take a quality prenatal vitamin. If the vitamin doesn’t contain enough calcium or folate, you may need additional supplementation.
A high-variety diet can help you meet your nutritional requirements in pregnancy:
- Needed for: Bone and teeth development; muscle and nerve function.
- How much per day: 1,000 mg.
- What to eat: Dairy products, fortified soy or rice milk, soybeans, figs or calcium-fortified products.
- Needed for: Cell growth; also reduces the likelihood of neural tube defects.
- How much per day: 600 mcg
- What to eat: Dark leafy green vegetables, wheat germ, beans, orange juice and fortified foods.
- Needed for: Promoting tissue growth and improving blood supply.
- How much per day: 48.6 mg.
- What to eat: Beans, dark leafy greens, prunes, tofu and fortified cereals; best paired with vitamin C foods, such as peppers or citrus fruits, to increase absorption.
Omega-3s (fatty acids)
- Needed for: Nerve, brain and visual development.
- How much per day: 200 mg of DHA (a type of omega-3). A microalgal source (either algal oil or fortified food) is the best way for vegetarians to meet this need.
- What to eat: Fish (a great natural source of omega-3s), chia seeds, flax seeds and fortified foods.
- Needed for: Building tissues and repairing cells.
- How much per day: 71 to 75 g.
- What to eat: Beans or lentils, soy products, nuts or nut butters, eggs and dairy products.
- Needed for: Supporting nerve cells and red blood cells.
- How much per day: 2.6 micrograms.
- What to eat: Fortified cereals or soy milk, milk and yogurt, eggs or fortified nutritional yeast.
- Needed for: Fetal bone development, along with calcium.
- How much per day: 600 IU.
- What to eat: Cow’s milk, eggs and fortified cereals and soy milk.
- Needed for: Supporting tissue growth and function.
- How much per day: 11 mg.
- What to eat: Beans, nuts, seeds, milk, some hard cheeses and fortified cereals.
- Needed for: Hormone production.
- How much per day: 220 mcg
- What to eat: Iodized salt.
There are also some foods you should avoid:
- Alcohol: You may increase the risk of premature delivery and a baby with low birth weight.
- Caffeine: Consume no more than 300 mg of caffeine each day.
- Artificial sweeteners: The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has approved some non-nutritive or artificial sweeteners during pregnancy. But avoid saccharin because it can pass through the placenta and remain in fetal tissue. Minimize intake of all other artificial sweeteners.
- Raw or undercooked foods: As pregnant people are at an increased risk for food poisoning, play it safe and avoid honey, raw or sprouted nuts and grains, unpasteurized milk or cheese and raw or undercooked eggs or soy products.
Tips for successful plant-based eating during pregnancy
If you want to ensure complete nutrition during a vegetarian pregnancy, it’s best to plan ahead. Zumpano recommends making a list of the fruits, veggies, proteins and grains you’re willing to eat and then planning your meals around them.
“Probably the hardest time to successfully eat vegetarian is during the first three months of pregnancy,” says Zumpano. “If you have morning sickness or nausea, food may not taste good. Or you don’t feel like eating for fear it will all come back up. It can be almost impossible to eat a complete diet in this situation.”
To avoid having soda crackers as your primary food source, Zumpano recommends:
- Juices: Juices have high concentrations of nutrients, so pregnancy is the perfect time to invest in a juicer. “A bowl of kale is not the first thing any pregnant woman would want to eat. But drinking kale juice with lemon and ginger is healthy and can even settle a woozy stomach,” she says.
- Smoothies: “During my pregnancies, I made a smoothie almost every day,” says Zumpano. “I would include a plant-based protein powder, hemp seeds or plain greek yogurt to help meet my protein needs. It’s also a way to sneak in the all-important dark leafy greens like kale or spinach.
- Snacks: “It can be hard to eat large portions when you feel crummy. Instead, I recommend snacks every two to three hours,” she says. Zumpano recommends focusing on whole foods such as fruits, veggies, yogurt, cheeses, nuts, seeds and eggs.
- Trickery: “Try sneaking veggies and protein in whenever you can, such as pureeing veggies or silken tofu in a sauce, and choosing a bean based pasta, making veggies patties with cheese, eggs, nutritional yeast, beans and veggies,” says Zumpano. “If you’re craving rice, pair it with stir-fried veggies or try mixing in some riced cauliflower. This is good practice for parenthood because we often have to sneak the healthy stuff in our kids’ foods, too.”
You’ll likely find it easier to meet all your nutritional needs in trimesters two and three (when you don’t feel like retching all day). But you can use these tips at all points in your pregnancy to ensure your baby gets the best nutrition for a healthy start in life
Recipes for a vegetarian pregnancy
These recipes can help you get started in developing a nutritionally complete eating plan: