What to eat for a vegetarian pregnancy

Being vegetarian and pregnant can definitely be a healthy choice, but you need to ensure your diet is balanced and provides all the nutrients you and your baby need. Our Dietitian Emer Delaney explains how...

Veggie pregnancy

Following a veggie diet when pregnant is perfectly healthy, but it is important to get all the nutrients you and your baby need. As a vegetarian mum-to-be, you really need to concentrate on getting enough of a number of key nutrients – protein, omega-3 fatty acids, iron, calcium, vitamin D, vitamin B12 and folate.

Protein power 

Protein is essential for the growth and development of your baby’s muscles, tissues and cells. However there are plenty of high protein vegetarian options available including lentils, beans and meat alternatives such as quorn and nuts.  Depending on the type of vegetarian you are, you may eat well-cooked eggs or dairy, or neither or both. If you do eat dairy make sure you choose products made from pasteurised milk. Regardless of this, it is important to include a protein-rich food at every meal.

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Omega-3 fatty acids

These beneficial fats are found in foods like oily fish, omega-3 enriched eggs as well as plant foods like soya, linseeds, chia seeds and walnuts.  During your pregnancy omega-3 fats are important for the development of your baby’s brain, eyes and central nervous system. More recent studies also suggest that a higher intake of omega-3 may reduce the risk of allergies. Evidence suggests that plant sources of omega-3 fatty acids may not be as rich as say oily fish, so speak to your GP or Health visitor if you are concerned.

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Iron 

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Iron is another key nutrient you need to be aware of and its role in pregnancy is very important.  During pregnancy, your body produces more blood to help deliver nutrients through the placenta to your body.  Following a vegetarian diet doesn’t mean your iron intake has to be compromised.  Good sources of iron include dark green vegetables, pulses, fortified breakfast cereals, well-done eggs, dried fruits and wholemeal bread.  Vitamin C increases the absorption of iron, so it’s a great idea to have a glass of orange juice (150ml), satsumas or an orange with or after your meal.

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Calcium 

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Calcium is vital for the development of your baby’s bones, teeth and cells, so ensuring your diet includes adequate calcium is key.  If you eat dairy products, animal milks, cheese and yogurts are  useful calcium foods - always check that the products are pasteurised.  If not, vegetarian options are equally good – just ensure your plant milks are enriched with added calcium.  Some non-animal milks e.g. rice and oat milk are naturally lower in calcium.  Pulses, set tofu, sesame seeds, tahini and dried fruit are all good sources of calcium.

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Vitamin D

Despite the amount of calcium-rich foods you eat, if you have low levels of vitamin D, your body can’t absorb the calcium you digest. A high proportion of us living in the UK have low vitamin D levels as we get most of it from sunlight. We can get some from food, however most is found in meat, oily fish and eggs. All pregnant women, regardless of their diet choices are advised to take a vitamin D supplement to ensure they have enough vitamin D for their baby.

Vitamin B12

This vitamin, is found naturally in animal foods, and is needed for growth, development and repair. If you regularly include eggs or dairy, you probably eat enough, however, if you avoid all animal products or eat eggs and dairy infrequently it’s important to have a reliable source of B12. As a vegetarian or vegan you may obtain B12 from yeast extract, fortified breakfast cereals, fortified soya products or B12 supplements.  

Folate

Folate is found in vegetables, in particular leafy greens so as long as you are eating a balanced, vegetarian diet you should be obtaining folate in your diet. However, during pre-conception and during the first 12 weeks of pregnancy your need for folate is greater. For this reason all women who are hoping to conceive or are in the first 12 weeks of pregnancy, whether vegetarian or not, are advised to supplement with 400mcg of folic acid.

And relax

When you're pregnant it can feel like you're bombarded with information from all sides, and sometimes you might just feel like a plate of beige for dinner, and there's no need to feel bad about that. You'll probably feel differently about food at different times in your pregnancy, so you may be craving greens one month and be disgusted by them the next. But it can be helpful to arm yourself with the knowledge of what foods will quickly get you the nutrients you need.

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This article was last reviewed on 10th June 2019. 

Emer Delaney BSc (Hons), RD has an honours degree in Human Nutrition and Dietetics from the University of Ulster. She has worked as a dietitian in some of London's top teaching hospitals and is currently based in Chelsea.

All health content on bbcgoodfood.com is provided for general information only, and should not be treated as a substitute for the medical advice of your own doctor or any other health care professional. If you have any concerns about your general health, you should contact your local health care provider. See our website terms and conditions for more information.

Are you following a vegetarian diet when pregnant? We would love to hear from you below...

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