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Vegetarian Nutrition During Pregnancy

Updated on May 20, 2013

Vegetarianism During Pregnancy

Pregnant women require specific nutrients in order to maintain their own health while growing healthy babies.

Women who are vegetarians may wonder if they will be able to consume all the important nutrients without consuming meat or fish.

Thankfully, it is possible to consume all the necessary nutrients during pregnancy while on a vegetarian diet. However, it is important to be aware of nutrients that you need, to know where you can find them, and to include them in your diet.

This article outlines important nutrients that pregnant vegetarians should be aware of and provides ideas on which foods they can eat to ensure they are not deficient.

Remember to discuss your diet, including vitamins and supplements you plan to take, with your doctor to ensure your pregnancy is as healthy as possible.

Vegetarian vitamins and supplements
Vegetarian vitamins and supplements | Source

Reminder

Check your prenatal vitamin to see which nutrients it contains, and which ones you will need to focus on getting.

There are vegetarian prenatal vitamins on the market!

Vitamin B12

Vitamin B12 plays a crucial role in red blood cell formation. A slight deficiency in vitamin B12 is not thought to be problematic. However, a severe deficiency can result in problems for your baby. The effects of a vitamin B12 deficiency are similar to the effects of a folic acid deficiency. Risks include severe birth defects, such as neural tube defects.

The Food and Nutrition Board (FNB) recommends pregnant women to get 2.6 micrograms (mcg) of vitamin B12 each day. FNB recommends breastfeeding women to get 2.8 mcg of vitamin B12 each day. Your prenatal vitamin is likely to contain a much higher amount than what is recommended. Excessive amounts of vitamin B12 are not generally toxic. Your body will get rid of the excess in urine.

Vegetarian foods that contain vitamin B12 include:

  • Nutritional yeast (7.8 mcg per 2 tablespoons)

  • Cereal (amount varies)

  • Milk (1.1 mcg per cup)

  • Yogurt (1.4 mcg per cup)

  • Swiss cheese (.9 mcg per 1 oz slice)

  • Hard boiled egg (.6 mcg per large egg)

Iron Tips

  • When you eat foods that contain iron, try to pair them with foods that contain vitamin C. Vitamin C helps with the absorption of iron!
  • Try to leave 30 minutes between consuming foods that contain iron and foods that contain calcium. Calcium makes it more difficult for our bodies to absorb iron.
  • Try not to consume caffeine with foods containing iron. The polyphenols in tea and coffee make it more difficult for our bodies to absorb iron.

Iron

Iron is important for women before, during, and after pregnancy. Iron is used by our bodies to make hemoglobin. Hemoglobin is important in transporting oxygen to our bodies' cells. Iron's purpose does not stop there, however. It is also important for making myoglobin, collagen, and several enzymes. Iron also helps support our immune systems.

During pregnancy, our bodies produce approximately 50 percent more blood than they otherwise produce. As a result, we require additional iron to help our bodies make more hemoglobin. An iron deficiency during pregnancy can result in complications for babies, such as infant mortality, preterm delivery, and low birth weight.

FNB recommends 27 milligrams (mg) of iron per day for pregnant women. FNB recommends 9 mg per day of iron for breastfeeding women between 19 and 50 years old, and 10 mg per day of iron for breastfeeding mothers between 14 and 18 years old. Prenatal vitamins are likely to contain around 100% of the recommended daily value of iron. Keep in mind, though, that your body is unlikely to absorb all of the iron in your vitamins. That means you should include iron-rich foods in your diet, allowing your body to absorb it in smaller amounts throughout the day.

Lentils

Lentils are full of good quality protein and packed with nutrients. Among many other nutrients, one cup of cooked lentils contains:

  • 6.6 mg of iron
  • 73.3 mg of omega-3 fatty acids
  • 2.5 mg of zinc
  • 358 mcg of folate
  • 37.6 mg of calcium

Lentils
Lentils | Source

Vegetarian foods that contain iron include:

  • Fortified cereal (18 mg per serving)
  • Fortified oatmeal (11 mg per serving)
  • Tofu (1 mg per 3 oz slice)
  • Soybeans (9.1 mg per cup, raw)
  • Pumpkin seeds (.9 mg per oz)
  • Quinoa (2.8 mg per cup, cooked)
  • White beans (6.6 mg per cup, cooked)
  • Spinach (.8 mg per cup, raw)
  • Lentils (6.6 mg per cup, cooked)
  • Sweet potatoes (1.2 mg per large potato, with skin)
  • Kidney beans (5.3 mg per cup, cooked)
  • Black beans (3.6 mg per cup, cooked)

Cook in a cast-iron skillet to increase the amount of iron in your food.

Omega-3 Fatty Acids

You may have heard of good fats and bad fats. Omega-3 fatty acids are good fats. Studies have shown that omega-3 EPA and DHA may be responsible for helping heart health, brain health, and depression. Omega-3's also help to lower triglycerides and blood pressure, and to reduce inflammation. During pregnancy, omega-3 fatty acids help with the development of your baby.

Our bodies are not able to convert a sufficient amount of ALA to DHA and EPA. As a result, it is important for us to include omega-3's in our diets. Considering fish is the best source of this nutrient, vegetarians need to be proactive to ensure they consume enough of it in other foods or with supplements.

Vegetarian sources of omega-3's include:

  • Flaxseed oil (7,196 mg per tablespoon)
  • Flaxseeds (1,597 mg per tablespoon of ground flaxseed)
  • Hummus - contains tahini, which is made from omega-3 rich sesame seeds (182 mg per cup)
  • Walnuts (2,565 mg per ounce)
  • Soybeans (105 mg per ounce of raw soybeans)
  • Cauliflower (104 mg per half cup, cooked)
  • Brussels sprouts (135 mg per half cup, cooked)

Yogurt

Yogurt is a great food choice. Not only is yogurt high in good quality protein, but it contains other important nutrients. One cup of yogurt contains:

  • 1.4 mcg of vitamin B12
  • .2 mg of iron
  • 31.9 mg of omega-3 fatty acids
  • 2.2 mg of zinc
  • 27 mcg of folate
  • 448 mg of calcium

Yogurt topped with roasted strawberries
Yogurt topped with roasted strawberries | Source

Zinc

Zinc is responsible for building cells and protecting cell membranes from damage. Zinc also helps prevent disease and helps support the immune system. Getting a sufficient amount of zinc before, during, and after pregnancy is important. Before pregnancy, zinc helps to produce reproductive cells in men and women. Zinc's importance continues during pregnancy and while breastfeeding, as it helps with cell production.

FNB recommends pregnant women, 19 years and older to consume 11 mg of zinc each day. Breastfeeding women should consume 12 mg of zinc each day. Pregnant women under 19 years should consume an additional 1 mg of zinc per day than women 19 and older. Consuming an insufficient amount of zinc during pregnancy can result in problems during pregnancy, delivery, and after your baby is born, such as miscarriage and low birth weight.

Vegetarian sources of zinc include:

  • Yogurt (2.2 mg per cup)
  • Garbanzo beans (2.5 mg per cup)
  • Swiss cheese (1.2 mg per 1 oz slice)
  • Oatmeal (1 mg per 1/3 cup, dry)
  • Almonds (.9 mg per oz)
  • Kidney beans (1.8 mg per cup)
  • Cheddar cheese (.9 mg per 1 oz slice)
  • Mozzarella cheese (.8 mg per oz)
  • Green peas (.6 mg per 1/2 cup)
  • Lentils (2.5 mg per cup)
  • Cashews (1.6 mg per oz)
  • Pecans (1.3 mg per oz)
  • Walnuts (.9 mg per oz)
  • Milk (1.0 mg per cup)

Eggs

Eggs contain a lot of important nutrients, including high quality proteins. Be careful to not overdo it though, because they are also high in cholesterol. In fact, one egg contains 212 mg of cholesterol, which is 71% of the daily value of cholesterol. One large hard boiled egg contains:

  • .6 mcg of vitamin B12
  • .6 mg of iron
  • 39 mg of omega-3 fatty acids
  • .5 mg of zinc
  • 22 mcg of folate
  • 25 mg of calcium

Eggs
Eggs | Source

Folate

Folate is responsible for the production and maintenance of new cells in our bodies. It is clear why folate is so crucial during pregnancy, considering the rapid division and growth of cells that takes place to grow a baby. Folic acid is a man-made form of folate. Our bodies have an easier time absorbing and using folic acid than folate. The good news is that leafy green vegetables and other vegetarian foods are among the best sources of folate.

FNB recommends pregnant women to consume 600 mcg of dietary folate equivalents each day. Breastfeeding women are recommended to consume 500 mcg each day. If an insufficient amount of folate or folic acid are not consumed during pregnancy, your baby's brain and spinal cord may have trouble developing, resulting in serious neural tube defects.

Vegetarian sources of folate include:

  • Spinach (58.2 mcg per cup, raw)
  • Broccoli (84.2 mcg per 1/2 cup, chopped, cooked)
  • Fortified breakfast cereals (100 mcg per serving)
  • White rice (91.6 mcg per cup, cooked)
  • Asparagus (134 mcg per 1/2 cup, cooked)
  • Brussels sprouts (46.8 mcg per 1/2 cup, cooked)
  • Romaine lettuce (63.9 mcg per cup, shredded)
  • Avocado (24.9 mcg per oz)
  • Green peas (101 mcg per cup)
  • Kidney beans (131 mcg per cup)
  • Garbanzo beans (282 mcg per cup)
  • Wheat germ (78.7 mcg per oz)
  • Oranges (31.5 mcg per 1 cup of orange sections)
  • Bananas (23.6 mcg per banana, medium)
  • Nutritional yeast (120 mcg per tablespoon)
  • Hard-boiled eggs (22 mcg per egg, large)
  • Milk (12.2 mcg per cup)

Vitamin D

Vitamin D is responsible for helping us absorb calcium, which helps us maintain strong bones. It goes without saying that during pregnancy vitamin D is extremely important, so that your baby can build strong bones and teeth. If you consume an insufficient amount of vitamin D during pregnancy, your baby may be prone to bone fractures, among other problems.

FNB recommends pregnant and breastfeeding women to consume 600 IU of vitamin D each day. The goods news is, FNB recommends the same amount for all adults between 19 and 70 years old. That means you will not need to increase your consumption, assuming you are already getting the recommended amount.

The bad news is that vitamin D is not easy to find in vegetarian sources. If you avoid vitamin D3 because it is an animal by-product, this eliminates even more food sources. If you spend time in the sun, your body will produce vitamin D. You may need to take a supplement to ensure you are consuming enough vitamin D.

Vegetarian sources of vitamin D include:

  • Mushrooms that have been exposed to ultravilot B light (3,500 IU per cup)
  • Mushrooms that have not been exposed to ultraviolet B light (12.6 IU per cup)
  • Milk (105 IU per cup)
  • Fortified cereal (varies)
  • Fortified orange juice (259 IU per cup)

Garbanzo Beans

Garbanzo beans are packed with nutrients. One cup of cooked garbanzo beans contains:

  • 4.7 mg of iron
  • 70.5 mg of omega-3 fatty acids
  • 2.5 mg of zinc
  • 282 mcg of folate
  • 80.4 mg of calcium

Calcium

Calcium is well-known for helping maintain strong bones and teeth. Calcium is also responsible for many other functions. For instance, calcium is important for muscle movement as well as the movement of blood. Calcium also helps nerves send signals between the brain and all parts of the body. The body is able to release hormones and enzymes with the help of calcium.

During pregnancy, calcium will help your baby build strong bones and teeth. Calcium will also help with the growth of a healthy heart for your baby, as well as nerves and muscles. Your baby's ability to have normal blood-clotting is also dependent upon calcium. The good news for your baby is that if you do not consume enough calcium during pregnancy, your bones will provide calcium to your baby. However, that is bad news for your future health, making it important to consume plenty of calcium.

FNB recommends pregnant and breastfeeding women to consume 1,000 mg of calcium each day. FNB recommends breastfeeding teens to consume 1,300 mg of calcium each day. Luckily, many excellent sources of calcium are vegetarian friendly. However, if you find it difficult to consume enough calcium through food sources, there are calcium supplements available, such as Tums Ultra, Caltrate, Oscal, Citracal, or Viactiv.

Vegetarian sources of calcium include:

  • Milk (286 mg per cup)
  • Yogurt (448 mg per cup)
  • Cheese (202 mg per 1 oz slice of cheddar)
  • Kale (90.5 mg per cup, raw)
  • Garbanzo beans (80.4 mg per cup)
  • Broccoli (42.8 mg per cup, chopped raw)
  • Fortified cereal (varies)

Protein

Many nutritionists recommend consuming .37 grams of protein per pound of body weight per day for a typical person. During pregnancy, it is important to consume more.

How much more may be up for debate. Some sources say increase your daily intake by 10 grams. Other experts say it depends on the amount of carbohydrates you consume. Yet other sources say you should consume anywhere between 60-90 grams per day (70 grams was the most popular recommendation I found).

Truly, it should vary by person, based on body weight. Check with your doctor or a dietitian to know how much protein is right for you.

Whatever the amount, it is good to know there are several excellent sources of vegetarian protein available.

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