What to eat for a vegetarian pregnancy
Being vegetarian and pregnant can be a healthy choice, but you do need to ensure your diet is balanced and provides all the nutrients you and your baby need. Dietitian Emer Delaney explains how...
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What is a vegetarian diet?
Vegetarians enjoy a diet of grains, pulses, nuts, seeds, vegetables and fruit, with some also choosing to include dairy products, including cheese (made using vegetable rennet) and eggs.
As a vegetarian mum-to-be, you need to focus on getting adequate amounts of key nutrients, including protein, omega-3 fatty acids, iron, calcium, iodine, vitamin D, vitamin B12 and folate.
What nutrients are important for a vegetarian pregnancy?
Protein is essential for the growth and development of your baby’s muscles, tissues and cells. There are plenty of plant source proteins including:
• beans and pulses
• nuts and seeds
• meat alternatives such as Quorn and soya mince
Depending on the type of vegetarian diet you follow, you may also include well-cooked eggs, dairy or neither. If you do eat dairy be sure to choose products made from pasteurised milk.
Aim to include a protein-rich food at every meal.
Omega-3 fatty acids
These are essential, which means you need to include them in your diet because your body cannot make them. Sources of omega-3 fats include:
• oily fish, like salmon, mackerel and sardines
• omega-3 enriched eggs that are well-cooked
• 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 plant sources of omega-3 fatty acids are not as rich as oily fish or algal forms of omega-3 fatty acids, so speak to your GP if you are concerned.
During pregnancy, your body produces more blood to help deliver nutrients through the placenta to your baby. Following a vegetarian diet doesn’t necessarily mean your iron intake will be low because there are many valuable plant sources, including:
• dark green vegetables
• pulses like beans, lentils and peas
• fortified breakfast cereals
• well-cooked eggs
• dried fruits
• wholemeal bread
Vitamin C enhances absorption of iron, so it’s a great idea to have a glass of orange juice (150ml), a couple of satsumas or an orange with or after a meal.
Vital for your baby’s bones, teeth and cells, ensuring your diet includes adequate amounts of calcium is key. Dairy foods, including milk, cheese and yogurt, are useful sources. Plant-based alternatives can be equally good but do check labels to ensure they are enriched with added calcium.
Other food sources include:
• pulses like peas and lentils
• set tofu
• sesame seeds and tahini
• dried fruit
During pregnancy and breast-feeding you have a higher need for the trace element, iodine. This mineral is essential for the correct function of the thyroid gland and for your baby’s brain development. The main sources in the diet are fish, seafood and dairy foods – if you have a pre-existing thyroid condition or you follow a plant-based diet you may need to supplement.
Some plant-based ‘milk’ alternatives are fortified with iodine, but check labels because not all products are, and amounts may vary – look for ‘potassium iodide’ on the ingredients label.
Regardless of how much calcium you eat, if you have low levels of vitamin D, your body won’t be able to absorb and use the calcium from your diet. A large number of us living in the UK have low vitamin D levels because we produce vitamin D through the action of sunlight on the skin, and from March to October, the sun’s rays aren't strong enough. We can get some vitamin D from food – the best sources being meat, oily fish and eggs.
All pregnant women, regardless of their dietary choices, are advised to take a vitamin D supplement to ensure they have enough vitamin D for their baby.
This 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 you should look to fortified foods as a reliable source. As a vegetarian or vegan you may obtain B12 from fortified yeast extract and breakfast cereals, fortified plant-based ‘milk’ alternatives or B12 supplements.
This 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 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.
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This article was last reviewed on 7th February 2022 by Kerry Torrens
Kerry Torrens BSc. (Hons) PgCert MBANT is a Registered Nutritionist with a post graduate diploma in Personalised Nutrition & Nutritional Therapy. She is a member of the British Association for Nutrition and Lifestyle Medicine (BANT) and a member of the Guild of Food Writers. Over the last 15 years she has been a contributing author to a number of nutritional and cookery publications including BBC Good Food.
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