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Your Vegetarian Pregnancy – Is It Safe?

Posted: Pregnancy & Birth » Nutrition/Supplem. | March 1st, 2005



By Jacqueline Bodnar

Part of preparing for the important job of becoming a mother includes wanting to do what you can to make sure you give your baby the best and healthiest start possible. Upon becoming pregnant, most vegetarian women are filled with questions about the nutritional requirements of protein, vitamin B-12, calcium and iron. Some vegetarian women also wonder why they crave meat during their pregnancy and whether or not they should give in to those cravings.

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Dr. Marci Bowers, who specializes in obstetrics and gynecology in Trinidad, Colorado, says that a vegetarian diet during pregnancy is absolutely healthy and very compatible with pregnancy. “You simply do not need a Ph.D. in biochemistry in order to eat healthy during pregnancy,” says Dr. Bowers, “A bit of creativity and common sense are all that are required.”

“The main precaution would be to not eliminate any food groups,” said Katharine Burton, a registered dietitian who works out of Emanuel Hospital in Portland, Oregon. The vegetarian diet needs to be filled with nutritious whole foods that include adequate amounts of protein, iron, fiber, calcium and water. Burton recommends that you fill up on fresh fruits and vegetables, whole grains, legumes, soy and diary foods.

Do you need anything extra?
In all pregnancies, it’s important to follow your doctor’s recommendations regarding taking prenatal multivitamins to ensure that micronutrient needs will be met each day. Along with that, Dr. Bowers recommends that all pregnant women take a calcium supplement beyond their prenatal vitamin.

During pregnancy, there is an increased need for nutrients such as iron, protein, calcium and folic acid. Your body requires an additional 100 calories per day during the first trimester and approximately 300 additional calories per day after that. The extra calories need to be in the form of nutrient-rich foods and not from processed, high-sugar and high-fat foods. According to Dr. Bowers, vegetarians generally gain less weight in pregnancy because their fat content is lower and their higher fiber content allows for more rapid metabolism.

Getting enough protein during pregnancy is often a concern that vegetarian women have. Burton recommends that protein consumption be increased by an additional 20 percent each day. Good vegetarian sources of protein include eating a variety of beans, hummus, soy products, tofu and tempeh.

Healthy choices
When it comes to choosing fruits and vegetables, remember that variety is the key. According to Burton, iron requirements are at their highest during pregnancy and a supplement of 30 mg per day is recommended. Eating dark leafy green vegetables each day, such as spinach, kale, and broccoli will provide iron, as will nuts, seeds and some cereals. To help the body absorb iron, include citrus fruits and avoid caffeine, which will inhibit absorption. Dr. Bowers suggests making your own salad dressings to help iron absorption by using lemon juice and olive oil as a base with other seasonings (e.g., dill, garlic).

According to Dr. Bowers, calcium requirements can be met through kale, broccoli, leafy greens and spinach. Burton adds that calcium can also be obtained through dairy and fortified soy products. Vitamin D can be found in fortified cereals and can also be obtained by getting 20 minutes of sunlight a few days per week.

For lacto-ovo vegetarians (those including dairy and eggs), there shouldn’t be any problem obtaining vitamin B-12. For those following a vegan diet (eliminating all animal products), extra precaution should be taken to meet requirements. Some meat alternatives, soy milks and cereals are fortified with the vitamin.

Cravings and aversions
Pregnant women commonly get food aversions and cravings. There are no clear cut answers as to why this happens. Many vegetarian women find they crave meat during their pregnancy. Some professionals suggest that your body may be craving something that it is missing. In the case of a vegetarian who craves meat, some professionals believe that it’s possible that your body is in need of increased iron.

“I remember that day when I called hubby at work and told him to bring home some chicken for dinner,” said Sarah Glenn of Irvine, California. She had been a vegetarian for two years before becoming pregnant. Within the first two months of her pregnancy, she started craving meat and ate chicken throughout her pregnancy. She returned to her vegetarian diet a couple of months postpartum.

Melissa Palma, of Ann Arbor, Michigan, a vegan at the time of her pregnancy, never craved meat but she did crave eggs at one point. She satisfied that craving by making tofu scrambles and eggless tofu sandwiches. Along with taking prenatal vitamins, she also spent a month tracking her nutrition to ensure that she was getting an adequate supply of protein.

Being vegetarian and craving something you have shunned can make you feel a bit bewildered. Some women choose to try to ignore the cravings or find a substitute for the meat item, while other women temporarily give in to the cravings and resume their normal eating pattern after giving birth. You should choose whichever option makes you feel the most comfortable and speak to your doctor about any concerns.

© Jacqueline Bodnar

Jacqueline Bodnar, a freelance writer from Las Vegas, and her husband have been vegetarian since 1995 and are raising their daughter to also be a vegetarian. She is the author of Vegetarian Resource Book: A to Z Reference Guide to Vegetarianism. Visit her web site at www.jacquelinebodnar.com.

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