The Vegetarian Mom-to-Be (part 2) - A Balanced Pregnancy Diet, Special Vitamin and Mineral Considerations

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4. A Balanced Pregnancy Diet

A healthy vegetarian pregnancy diet must be balanced. In other words, it must contain all of the nutrients essential to good health and a healthy pregnancy. It may take a little work, but keep in mind that knowledge is power. The more you know about the foods you eat, the more nutritious your diet can become. The nutritional adequacy of a vegetarian diet depends more on the overall food choices made over several days than what you consume at each meal.

During breastfeeding, you need more calories than you do while pregnant. Vegetarian women who are breastfeeding also need to make sure they are consuming plenty of vitamin B12 sources because intake can affect levels in breast milk. While you are on prenatal vitamins, you should get all of the nutrients you need. After delivery, your doctor will most likely take you off your prenatal vitamins. Talk to your doctor or a dietitian about starting a multivitamin/mineral supplement that will ensure optimal nutritional intake.

The Vegetarian Food Guide Pyramid

The Vegetarian Food Guide Pyramid is very similar to the regular Food Guide Pyramid. The vegetarian version provides recommended guidelines for the vegetarian population. The lacto-ovo vegetarian diet can be modified to meet the guidelines of the Food Guide Pyramid with only a few modifications. If you consume eggs and/or dairy products, choose lower-fat or nonfat products to limit the amount of saturated fat and cholesterol you consume each day.

The following list describes the minimum number of servings you should consume from each food group during pregnancy:

Use fats, oils, and sweets sparingly. This includes candy, butter, margarine, salad dressing, and cooking oil.

Eat 3–4 servings from the milk, yogurt, and cheese group. Examples of single servings from this group include one cup of milk or yogurt or 1.5 ounces of cheese. Vegetarians who choose not to eat milk, yogurt, or cheese should select other food sources rich in calcium, such as calcium-fortified juice, cereal, dark-green leafy vegetables, and soy milk.

Eat 2 servings (6–7 ounces each) from the dry beans, nuts, seeds, eggs, and meat substitutes group. Examples of a single serving from this food group include one cup of soy milk, ½ cup of cooked dry beans or peas, one egg or two egg whites, 1/3 cup of nuts or seeds, or 2 tablespoons peanut butter. Shoot to eat at least 3–4 servings of cooked dried beans weekly. They are a good choice because they are full of zinc, iron, protein, and fiber.

Eat 4 servings from the vegetable group. Examples of a single serving from this group include ½ cup of cooked or chopped raw vegetables or 1 cup of raw leafy vegetables. Choose dark-green leafy vegetables often for higher calcium intake.

Eat 3 servings from the fruit group. Examples of a single serving from this group include ¾ cup of juice, ¼ cup of dried fruit, ½ cup of chopped raw fruit, ½ cup of canned fruit, or a medium-size piece of fruit, such as banana, apple, or orange.

Eat 9 servings from the bread, cereal, rice, and pasta group. Examples of a single serving from this group include one slice of bread, 1 ounce of ready-to-eat cereal, ½ cup of cooked cereal, ½ cup of cooked brown rice, pasta, or other grains, or half a bagel. Choose whole-wheat and whole-grain breads and pastas more often, as well as fortified and enriched products.

Vegetarian Meal Planning Tips

The key to a vegetarian diet is making the right choices and eating a variety of foods. It never hurts to take an overall look at your diet to make sure it is well balanced, nutritious, and in line with your new pregnancy needs. There are all kinds of vegetarian foods out there that you may have never thought of trying. Here are a few suggestions to get you started:

• Explore new foods at your grocery store. Instead of going with the same old foods, try new grains (such as barley, bulgur, couscous, kasha, and quinoa), vegetables, and/or legumes each week.

• Try different meat-free or soy products from the selection located in the freezer section or the health section. Soy can boost the protein, calcium, and iron content of almost any meal.

• Add different types of legumes or dried beans to casseroles, stews, soups, salads, and chili for a protein, iron, zinc, and fiber boost to your meal.

• Prepare some of your favorite dishes with a soy substitute, such as using textured vegetable protein in Sloppy Joes or spaghetti sauce or adding cubed tofu to a stir-fry along with your favorite vegetables.

• Next time you grill out, try a marinated portabella mushroom or veggie burger marinated in teriyaki sauce or your favorite marinade.

• When looking for a place to dine out, suggest Chinese, Vietnamese, Thai, or Italian. You can always find plenty of vegetarian entrees on these menus.

If you are a vegan, you will have a tougher time making sure you receive all the essential nutrients you need during pregnancy. You will need to make more modifications to the Food Guide Pyramid. Seek the guidance of a dietitian who can make sure you are planning your diet correctly.

5. Special Vitamin and Mineral Considerations

If you are not careful, eliminating animal foods from your diet can cause a shortfall of several nutrients in an otherwise healthy eating plan. Nutrients that should be given special attention include calcium, vitamin D, iron, vitamin B12, and zinc. You should notify your doctor of your vegetarian eating style so that she is aware of your nutrient intake and can prescribe supplements you might need. In addition, careful meal planning and good choices can ensure the intake of all these essential nutrients each day. Keep in mind that you should never take additional supplements without first speaking to your doctor. It is possible to overdo a good thing! If you have questions about how you can combine foods to incorporate essential vitamins and minerals, speak to a registered dietitian.


Calcium is vital for strong bones and teeth for both the baby and the mother. Pregnant women need 1,000 mg per day. For vegetarian moms who consume dairy products (at least three servings of dairy foods each day), consuming enough calcium should not be a problem. For vegans, however, calcium intake can be a concern. However, calcium can be found in both plant and animal foods.

Is it OK to take a calcium supplement if I don’t eat dairy foods?

If you can’t get enough calcium from the foods you choose, a supplement can be a good idea. The rule of thumb should always be food before supplements, though. First, include calcium-containing foods in your diet as much as possible, and then supplement on top of that. Never let a supplement take the place of an entire food group or nutrient such as calcium.

Though it may take a bit more planning, as a pregnant vegan you can definitely find foods that fit your eating style and contain enough calcium to help you meet your daily needs. Some of these foods include tofu processed with calcium; calcium-fortified beverages such as orange juice and soy milk; calcium-fortified breakfast cereals; broccoli; seeds, such as sunflower and sesame; tahini; nuts such as almonds; soy beans; legumes; some greens, such as kale, mustard greens, and collards; bok choy; okra; dried figs; almond butter; and some dark-green leafy vegetables.

Vitamin D

Vitamin D is essential to help the body absorb calcium and phosphorus and then depositing them into teeth and bones. Your body can also make vitamin D when your skin is exposed to sunlight. With the exception of milk, very few foods are naturally high in vitamin D. If you are a vegetarian who drinks milk, vitamin D should not be a concern if you consume the recommended number of servings. However, if you are a vegan, you need to be careful that you get enough vitamin D in your diet. The best way for vegans to get vitamin D is from fortified foods. Check the nutrition facts panel on the labels of foods fortified with vitamin D, such as breakfast cereals, soy beverages, and some calcium-fortified juices. Your prenatal vitamin should also ensure that you are receiving the amount of vitamin D you need daily for a healthy pregnancy. The requirement for pregnant women is 5 mcg per day.


Regardless of whether you are a vegetarian, it is likely that you don’t get enough iron. This nutrient is often lacking in women’s diets. As a result, during pregnancy, women are often prescribed a prenatal vitamin and mineral supplement that includes iron to meet their increased needs and to prevent iron-deficiency anemia. As a pregnant vegetarian, it can be difficult to get enough absorbable iron to meet your daily needs.

Some plant foods do contain iron. Called nonheme iron, it is not absorbed as well as the iron found in animal foods, or heme iron. The challenge for vegetarians is to improve the absorption of nonheme iron foods. You can start by consuming iron-rich plant sources every day, such as legumes, iron-fortified cereals and breads, whole-wheat and whole-grain products, tofu, some dark-green leafy vegetables, seeds, nuts, tempeh, prune juice, blackstrap molasses, and dried fruit.

If your vegetarian diet allows you to consume eggs, keep in mind that they too contain nonheme iron. You can increase your body’s absorption of nonheme iron by including a vitamin C–rich food with these nonheme iron sources at every meal, such as orange juice and other citrus juices, citrus fruits, broccoli, tomatoes, and green or red peppers. If you are a semi-vegetarian, eat a little meat, poultry, or fish with nonheme iron sources to help your body better absorb the iron.

Vitamin B12

Vitamin B12 is mainly found in animal foods. Because plant foods are not a reliable source of vitamin B12, it can be a concern for vegetarians, especially vegans. Vitamin B12 is important for helping the body make red blood cells and use fats and amino acids. It is also part of the structure of every cell in the body. The body only needs small amounts of vitamin B12. Because it is stored and recycled in the body, a deficiency in the short term is not likely. Over time, however, a deficiency of vitamin B12 can result in anemia.

Every day, vegans need to consume at least one (preferably more) servings of foods fortified with vitamin B12, such as fortified breakfast cereals, soy milk products, rice milk beverages, or meat substitute products such as vegetarian burgers.

Some products, such as seaweed, algae, spirulina, tempeh, and miso, are not good sources of vitamin B12 even though their packages may make a different claim. The vitamin B12 that is contained in these products is inactive and is not in a form that the body can utilize.

If you are a vegetarian who eats dairy and eggs, vitamin B12 intake should not be a problem as long as you consume the recommended number of daily food group servings. Vitamin B12 is usually a standard vitamin included in most prenatal supplements. Most prenatal vitamin supplements contain cyancobalamin, the form of vitamin B12 most easily absorbed by the body.


It is tough to get enough zinc when you do not consume meat, poultry, or seafood of any kind. Zinc can be found in eggs and milk, as well as other dairy products. You can also get zinc from plant foods, though it is not absorbed as well as the zinc from animal foods. Zinc-containing plant foods include whole-wheat bread, whole grains, bran, wheat germ, legumes and peas, tofu, seeds, and nuts. Most well-balanced vegetarian diets supply enough zinc, but you should make sure that you consume sufficient amounts. Even mild deficiencies can have an effect on mental performance for both adults and children. Though your prenatal vitamin contains zinc, you should also be sure to get zinc from foods in your diet.

6. The Power of Protein

When you become pregnant, your protein needs increase by 30 percent. Protein can be found in both animal and plant foods, which makes it easy for both meat-eating and vegetarian women to get all of the protein they need. If you are a vegan, as long as you eat a wide variety of plant foods including whole grains, cereals, legumes, and soy products at each meal, you too should have no problem consuming all of the protein you need for a healthy pregnancy.

Protein is considered a macronutrient because it provides the body with energy, or calories. Protein is part of every cell in the body. Your body requires a constant supply of protein to repair body cells as they wear out. During pregnancy, you need protein to make new cells. Your body’s tissues are all unique because of the differing amino acid patterns in their proteins. Amino acids are the building blocks of proteins. Your body uses about twenty different amino acids to make body proteins. Of those, nine are considered essential—your body cannot make them, and you must get them from the foods you eat. The others are considered nonessential amino acids because your body does make them as long as you consume enough essential amino acids and enough calories each day. Animal foods such as meat, poultry, fish, eggs, milk, cheese, and yogurt contain all nine essential amino acids. These foods are said to contain “complete proteins” or “high-quality proteins.” Plant foods, on the other hand, contain essential amino acids, but not all nine together. These sources are said to be “incomplete proteins.”

Soy is the exception to the incomplete protein rule. Soy is the only plant food that is a complete protein and contains all nine of the essential amino acids.

Gone are the days when vegans were instructed to eat foods in special combinations at each meal to make sure they were getting the right mix of essential amino acids to make proteins. Instead, vegans need only make sure they are eating a balanced diet that includes a wide variety of plant foods and that provides enough calories each and every day. If you are a vegan, this eating plan will ensure you are receiving all of the essential amino acids in needed amounts each day to make the proteins that you body needs. It is more important to think about your total day’s intake rather than each meal individually.

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