A well-balanced vegetarian diet has numerous health benefits. Research shows that increasing intake of plant foods and decreasing intake of animal foods can help reduce the risk for heart disease, cancer and diabetes.
At our private nutrition practice, Rooted Wellness, many of our clients want to know if maintaining a vegetarian diet is safe during pregnancy and adequate for conception. The simple answer is yes! Research shows that a well-balanced vegetarian diet is safe for both a mother’s health during pregnancy and the health of her baby.
However, vegetarians are at a greater risk for certain nutrient deficiencies, especially during pregnancy, when nutrient needs are increased. If you are a vegetarian mama-to-be, eating a well-balanced diet inclusive of a wide variety of foods and thoughtful use of vitamin and mineral supplementation can help you meet your needs.
Nutrients of concern for a vegetarian pregnancy
Deficiencies in these nutrients are more common among vegetarians. Women who are pregnant or trying to conceive should be conscious of getting in good sources of these nutrients daily!
Protein needs during pregnancy rise to support growth of fetal and maternal tissues. A pregnant woman needs anywhere between 75-100g of protein per day, depending on her size and activity level. Pregnant women who consume a wide variety of plant-based protein in addition to eggs and dairy should have no problem meeting their increased protein needs. Aim to get at least one serving of protein at each meal and snack to meet your needs.
Iron helps shuttle oxygen to the various tissues of our body. Iron needs go up during pregnancy to meet increased oxygen demands. Approximately 18% of pregnant women in the US are iron deficient. Studies demonstrate that vegetarians are more likely to have lower iron stores compared with non-vegetarians.
Plant-based foods are an excellent source of iron but here’s the catch: our bodies can’t absorb non-heme iron, the type of iron found in plant foods, as well as they absorb heme iron, the type that is found in animal foods. To increase absorption of non-heme iron, pair plant-based sources of iron with good sources of vitamin C (like citrus fruits, bell peppers, brussel sprouts & strawberries).
Good Sources of Vegetarian Iron: Eggs, legumes, tofu, leafy greens, nuts, seeds, and dried fruit.
Good Sources of Vegetarian Protein: Eggs, Greek yogurt, beans, chickpeas, lentils, tofu, quinoa, nuts and seeds.
Omega-3 Fatty Acids
Adequate omega-3 fatty acid consumption during pregnancy is critical for a baby’s nervous system development. Additionally, research shows that eating foods rich in omega-3 fatty acids during pregnancy may lower a woman’s risk for postpartum depression.
The two most beneficial omega-3 fatty acids for maternal and fetal health are DHA (docosahexaenoic acid) and EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid). DHA and EPA are primarily found in fatty fish like salmon, tuna, sardines and anchovies. Some plant foods contain a third form of omega-3 called ALA (alpha-linolenic acid), but ALA is not in the active form and therefore not nearly as beneficial as DHA and EPA. Therefore, vegetarian women should speak to their doctor about supplementing with a high-quality omega-3 supplement.
A 2013 study showed that women who had sufficient levels of vitamin D had more success conceiving while undergoing IVF compared to women with insufficient levels of vitamin D. Insufficient vitamin D status is also associated with the development of pre-eclampsia and compromised fetal bone development.
We produce vitamin D from the sun and can also get it from consumption of fatty fish, egg yolks, and cheese. Data shows that 42% of the US population is deficient in vitamin D. While vitamin D deficiencies aren’t specific to just vegetarians, it is a nutrient that everyone should be paying more attention to, especially pregnant women or those trying to conceive.
Pregnant women and those women TTC should speak to their doctor about supplementing with vitamin D.
When combined with folate, vitamin B12 is thought to prevent neural tube defects from occurring during pregnancy. The neural tube forms during the first six weeks of pregnancy, often before a woman even knows she is pregnant, so ensuring you have adequate B12 stores prior to pregnancy is critical. Vitamin B12 is only found in foods derived from animals. However, vegetarians can get enough B12 if they are eating eggs and dairy products like cheese, milk and yogurt.
Vegetarian Sources of B12: Dairy products like cheese, milk and yogurt
The Bottom Line
A vegetarian diet is safe for pregnancy but does require a bit more planning and thought. It is important that vegetarian women eat a wide variety of foods to support the healthy growth of their babies and their own physical and mental health. In addition to a high quality vegan prenatal like our Prenatal for her, women should speak to their doctor about supplementing with other nutrients.
If you have further questions or would like help planning a vegetarian diet for your own pregnancy, please feel free to reach out to us at Rooted Wellness.