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A vegetarian diet—one that’s rich in fruits, vegetables, beans, nuts and seeds—can be a healthy way to eat, even during pregnancy.
According to a 2016 Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics’ position paper, a well planned vegetarian or vegan diet during pregnancy and while breastfeeding is appropriate. What’s more, a 2015 review in the journal BJOG suggests following a vegetarian or vegan diet during pregnancy is safe and not associated with adverse outcomes or birth defects.
Being a junk-food vegetarian and filling up on meatless foods like breads, pastas and processed foods alone however, isn’t a healthy way to eat and can lead to nutritional deficiencies. Add to that nausea and morning sickness, and you could be missing out on the nutrients you need for a healthy pregnancy.
The key therefore, is to make sure your vegetarian diet is well designed and includes all of the nutrients you and your baby need.
Here are some things to consider when planning a vegetarian diet during pregnancy.
1. Fill up on folate
The US Preventive Services Task Force recommends all women of childbearing age take between 400 and 800 micrograms (mcg) of folic acid, the synthetic form of folate, to prevent neural tube defects like spina bifida that can occur during the early weeks of pregnancy.
During pregnancy, you should take a prenatal vitamin with 600 mcg of folic acid to support your baby’s development.
Although folic acid is better absorbed than folate-rich foods, getting foods like spinach, black-eyed peas, asparagus and Brussels sprouts is ideal.
2. Pick protein
Getting enough protein during pregnancy is important for cell growth, both for you and your baby.
The Dietary Reference Intake (DRI) for protein is 46 grams per day during the first trimester and 71 grams per day during the second and third trimesters.
On a vegetarian diet, beans and legumes are excellent sources of protein and can easily be swapped in for meat in most dishes. Beans and legumes are also healthy choices because they contain fiber which balance blood sugar, help you feel satiated and prevent pregnancy constipation.
Other sources of protein include eggs, nuts and seeds, tofu, tempeh and edamame.
3. Up your intake of iron
Iron helps your baby and the placenta develop, allows red blood cells in your body to deliver oxygen to your baby, and maintains your body’s blood volume which doubles during pregnancy. Not only can iron-deficiency anemia cause fatigue, it can lead to preterm labor as well.
During pregnancy, you need 27 milligrams of iron but your iron needs may be higher because plant-based iron may not be as readily absorbed as the iron in animal products.
To improve absorbency, you can soak and cook beans, legumes and nuts or pair them with vitamin-C rich foods. Vitamin C rich foods include strawberries, honeydew, broccoli, cauliflower, green peppers, Brussel sprouts and tomatoes. Other iron-rich foods include eggs, spinach, raisins, quinoa, pumpkin seeds, and fortified cereals.
4. Eat calcium-rich foods
Calcium is an important nutrient during pregnancy because it helps your baby build strong teeth and bones, and it’s important for his cardiovascular function.
Dairy products are a rich source of calcium, vitamin D and protein as well as vitamin B12. Vitamin B12 supports brain and nervous system development and is necessary to absorb folate and choline. B12 is primarily found in animal sources but you can also get it in fortified foods like cereals, meat substitutes, nondairy milks, and nutritional yeast.
If you’re avoiding dairy products, be sure to include non-dairy calcium sources such as green leafy vegetables, figs, and chia seeds.
5. Get healthy fats
Foods high in omega-3 fatty acids, including DHA, are vital for baby’s brain, eyes and nervous system development. Be sure to include fatty fish like salmon as well as eggs, nuts and seeds.
If you don’t eat fish or eggs however, you’ll want to pay attention to the ration of omega-6 fatty acids to omega-3 fatty acids for optimal conversion of alpha-linolenic acid (ALA) to DHA and EPA. I suggest you speak with a registered dietitian nutrition who specializes in pregnancy nutrition and can design a healthy plan for you.
6. Eat complex carbohydrates
Foods rich in complex carbohydrates include vitamins, minerals and phytonutrients you need for a healthy pregnancy. They support your baby’s neurological development and overall health, and give you steady energy throughout the day.
Foods rich in complex carbohydrates include foods like fruits and vegetables, beans and legumes, sweet potatoes, oatmeal and brown rice.
7. Take a prenatal vitamin
A good prenatal vitamin shouldn’t replace whole-food sources of nutrients but if you’re battling morning sickness or find it difficult to get what you need, it can help fill in the nutritional gaps.