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Is a vegetarian diet safe for my baby?
Q: I’m vegetarian and would like to remain vegetarian during the pregnancy. What can I do to ensure my baby is healthy?
A: Paying attention to nutrition is essential for every pregnancy, and this is especially true for vegetarians. While your requirements for calories, protein, vitamins and minerals increase during pregnancy, you should be able to meet these needs with a vegetarian or vegan diet. In order to fulfill the extra needs of pregnancy, pay attention to the following recommendations:
  • Make sure you’re eating enough calories. Aim for around 2,000 to 3,000 calories a day to meet the extra needs of pregnancy. These calories should be in the form of “nutrient dense” foods (yogurt with fruit, soymilk smoothies, bean dips) rather than “empty calories” like candy or potato chips.

  • Boost your protein intake to 60 grams a day. This additional protein translates to an increase of 10 grams a day if your diet was adequate before pregnancy. Some examples of ways to add this extra protein are: 2 cups of soymilk, 9 ounces of tofu, 3 ounces of tempeh or 1 cup of cooked beans.

  • Take extra iron to support the extra blood cell production during pregnancy. It’s difficult to supply your extra iron requirements from your diet; most pregnant women find they need supplements of at least 30 milligrams a day.

  • Eat four or more servings of calcium-rich food a day. Choose from sources such as milk, cheese, fortified fruit juices, fortified soy or rice milk, dark green leafy vegetables (such as collard greens, kale, and turnip greens) or blackstrap molasses. Calcium supplements are another option.

  • Vitamin D is produced by exposure to sunlight, and may not be part of a vegan diet. Eat vitamin-D fortified foods or sunbathe for 20 to 30 minutes at a time, two or three times a week.

  • Folate requirements are increased in pregnancy, and taking adequate folate in the beginning of pregnancy helps to prevent neural tube defects. Take a supplement with 400 micrograms of folate in addition to eating a diet rich in dark green leafy vegetables, fortified grain products and legumes.

  • Vitamin B-12 is essential for normal cell division and protein synthesis. As this important vitamin is found in animal products, some vegetarians meet their needs with eggs and milk. Vegan sources include some brands of nutritional yeast (such as Red Star T6635), B-12 fortified cereal and B-12 fortified soymilk. Aim for the recommended daily allowance of 2.2 micrograms, found in a rounded teaspoon of yeast powder or a cup of wheat Nutri-Grain cereal.

  • Zinc is another essential pregnancy nutrient that may be deficient in vegetarians as well as omnivores. Whole grains, nuts and legumes are good sources.

  • Many practitioners recommend taking a prenatal vitamin during pregnancy and lactation if you are vegetarian or vegan, so discuss this with your provider.
Laura E. Stachel M.D. Obstetrician & Gynecologist