Whether you are a lacto-vegetarian or a lacto-ovo-vegetarian, adding pregnancy to the equation may cause concerned loved ones to drill you with questions. So, do you need to forego vegetarianism if you are planning to conceive? Not necessarily: a planned vegetarian diet that consists of all essential nutrients can do wonders for you and has been shown to adequately support healthy growth and development of the precious little one growing inside you.
Can I get enough protein on a vegetarian diet?
Absolutely: You do not need to eat animal products to meet your protein requirements which, by the way, are not vastly higher during pregnancy. Simply drinking cow’s milk or soy milk can help you fulfil your protein needs. Eggs are also excellent protein sources, especially the whites.
Planning a plant-based meal? Consider high-protein plant foods such as beans, lentils, and peas; nuts and nut butters; seeds and seed butters; and soy foods.
Did you know that grains and several vegetables also contain moderate amounts of protein?Good examples include the wide variety of grains and cereals (amaranth, buckwheat, quinoa, millet, bulgur, teff, kamut, wheat, rice, and oats) and vegetables such as broccoli, spinach and artichokes. Potatoes, yam and corn also contain some protein.
What if my protein intake is still too low?
That’s very rare, but if you have trouble meeting your protein needs, discuss with your dietitian regarding the use of supplements such as rice, soy, or hemp based powders — these are readily available at health food stores. Simply blend them into drinks, casseroles, soups, mashed potatoes, porridge or other foods.
As a vegetarian, what are the micronutrients on my upmost priority list?
Omega-3 fatty acids
Pregnancy increases your requirements for omega-3s, more specifically DHA which plays an important role in your baby’s brain and vision development.
If you do not eat fish, you may want to consider plant sources of omega-3 — cultured microalgae, flax seeds and oil, hemp seeds and oil, canola oil, walnuts, dark leafy green vegetables, kidney and pinto beans, squash, canola oil, broccoli, cauliflower, avocado and papaya.
Check food labels: some eggs, milk, soymilk, orange juice, veggie burgers, yogurt, breads, cereals, and margarine are fortified with algae-based (vegetarian) omega-3 DHA.
Pregnant women have a substantial iron demand due to increased blood volume and foetal development; a supplement may thus be warranted. Foods rich in iron include green leafy vegetables, dried beans and legumes, tofu, and whole grains. Adding foods high in vitamin C during mealtimes can increase iron absorption.
Needed for your baby’s growth and development, this mineral can be obtained from fish, peas, beans, fortified breakfast cereals, nuts and seeds, wheat germ, tofu, and tempeh.
These two nutrients are required for bone and teeth health and development of the foetus and for your own bone health. Calcium needs do not increase since calcium absorption is enhanced in pregnancy.
Calcium rich foods include dairy products; calcium-fortified tofu, soymilk, and orange juice; broccoli and other dark green vegetables. Vitamin D supplements are recommended throughout pregnancy, regardless of your diet.
In order to prevent neural tube defects, all pregnant women are advised to take a 400 microgram folic acid tablet every day. You may also want to consume folate-rich foods such as dark leafy greens, whole grains, and orange juice.
Required for optimal development of the foetus’ nervous system. Common B12-fortified foods include ready-to-eat cereals, soymilks and other plant-based milks, nutrition bars, meat analogues, yeast extract such as Marmite, dairy products and eggs. You may also need to take a supplement.
Additional diet recommendations
- Include three to four servings of beans and alternates each day: To optimise your intake of zinc, iron and protein.
- Consume four servings of calcium-rich foods daily: This includes non-fat or low-fat cow’s milk or calcium- and vitamin D-fortified soy milk. Consider foods that contain 300 mg of calcium per serving.
- Load your daily diet with antioxidants: Try to consume five to seven servings of vegetables and three to five of fruits. If you have diabetes or gestational diabetes, limit your fruit intake to a maximum of 2 per day and never on an empty stomach.
- Add whole grains and cereals to each of your daily meals: This will ensure that you meet your needs for B-complex vitamins.
- Include at least one food that provides vitamin B12.
- Increase intake of omega-3 fatty acids to 2 percent of total calories: That would be 2 teaspoons of flaxseed oil, or 2 tablespoons of canola oil.
- Avoid alcohol: Alcohol has been shown to strip the body of its nutrient stores and also increases your risks of giving birth to a baby with Foetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder (FASD).
Sample vegetarian meal plan
This sample meal plan provides roughly 2200 calories, 90 g protein, 55 g fat (22% of calories), and 336 g carbohydrate. It meets recommendations for zinc, calcium, vitamin B12, riboflavin, thiamin, folate, and niacin. Iron and vitamin D supplements may be required.
1/2 cup oatmeal with honey and 1 cup cow’s milk or fortified soymilk
1 slice whole-wheat toast with 2 tablespoons almond butter, sprinkled with wheat germ
1/2 cup calcium-fortified orange juice
1/2 whole wheat bagel with low-fat cheese spread or margarine
Sandwich with ½ cup baked tofu, 2 slices whole-grain bread and lettuce
1 cup steamed collard greens
1 cup fortified soymilk or 1 Greek yoghurt
4 dried prunes
7 almonds or any nuts
1 cup fortified soymilk
1 cup lentils and ½ cup brown rice
½ cup broccoli with nutritional yeast
2 cups tossed salad with herbs and lemon juice
½ cup carrot sticks with ¼ cup hummus
Remember: The key to a nutritionally sound vegetarian diet is quite simple and countless cases have proven that it is not complicated to grow a fit, thriving baby on a vegetarian pregnancy diet. Simply ensure that you eat a variety of foods: colour your plate with vegetables, fruits, whole grains, beans, nuts and seeds.
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Garton L (2011) Food Fact Sheet: Vegetarian diets - Keeping a healthy balance (Accessed August 2013). British Dietetic Association.
Koebnick et al (2001) Folate status during pregnancy in women is improved by long-term high vegetable intake compared with the average western diet. J Nutr. 131(3):733-739.
Koebnick et al (2004) Long-term ovo-lacto vegetarian diet impairs vitamin B-12 status in pregnant women. J Nutr. 134(12):3319-3326.
Messina V, Mangels R and Messina M (2004) The Dietitian's Guide to Vegetarian Diets: Issues and Applications. 2nd ed. Sudbury, MA: Jones and Bartlett Publishers.
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