Is a Vegetarian or Vegan Diet Safe While Pregnant? Prenatal Dietitian Tips and Plant-Forward Diet Plans During Pregnancy

Is it safe to follow a vegetarian or vegan diet while pregnant?

Plant-forward diets (including vegetarian and vegan diets) have become more common over the years for a number of reasons. Sometimes women who follow a vegetarian or vegan diet are concerned about how safe it may be for them and their developing babies.

The key to getting the nutrients you need while pregnant and nursing as a vegetarian or vegan is planning your diet. This can take a significant amount of nutrition education, support and, we recommend, guidance from a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist.

As we’ve discussed, there are key nutrients pregnant women need to reduce the risk of complications. We’ll review the list and discuss vegetarian/vegan alternatives. 

Here are nutrition tips to meet your nutrient needs with a vegetarian or vegan diet

  1. Protein plays a crucial role in building and repairing tissues, producing hormones, and supporting a healthy immune system.During pregnancy, the body requires more protein to support the growth of the placenta and the developing baby. The American Pregnancy Association recommends that pregnant women consume at least 75-100 grams of protein per day, depending on their weight and activity level.

Vegetarian sources of protein:

  • Legumes: beans, lentils, chickpeas, and peas are all high in protein and fiber. They are not considered complete proteins because they do not contain all of the essential amino acids. Combining legumes with whole grains like rice, quinoa, or whole wheat bread can provide all of the essential amino acids that our bodies need.
  • Nuts and seeds: almonds, cashews, chia seeds, pumpkin seeds, and sunflower seeds are all rich in protein, healthy fats, and other important nutrients. Like legumes, they are not complete proteins and can be combined with whole grains to get the complete protein your body needs. For example, peanut butter on whole wheat bread, or a stir-fry with mixed vegetables, tofu, and cashews over brown rice, can both provide a complete protein. Other combinations could include hummus with whole wheat pita bread or a salad with quinoa, pumpkin seeds, and mixed greens.
  • Tofu and tempeh: these soy-based products are versatile and can be used in a variety of dishes. They’re also good sources of calcium and iron. And these plant-based proteins are complete proteins!
  • Dairy and dairy alternatives: milk, yogurt, cheese, and plant-based milk alternatives like soy milk or almond milk are all good sources of protein.
  • Vegetables: broccoli, spinach, peas, and Brussels sprouts are all examples of vegetables that are high in protein.
  • Eggs: this high-quality complete protein packs a punch! Eggs are also a good source of many important vitamins and minerals, such as vitamin B12, vitamin D, and choline.

  1. Iron is important during pregnancy because it is essential for the development of the placenta and the growth and development of the baby. Iron is also needed to produce hemoglobin, a protein in red blood cells that carries oxygen to the body’s tissues. During pregnancy, the body needs more iron to support the increased blood volume and to provide iron to the growing fetus.

    Vegetarian sources high in iron:
  • Legumes: lentils, chickpeas, and beans (such as kidney, navy, and black beans) are all excellent sources of iron.
  • Tofu: this soy-based product is not only a good source of protein, but also a good source of iron.
  • Nuts and seeds: pumpkin seeds, sesame seeds, and cashews are all high in iron.
  • Dark leafy greens: spinach, kale, and collard greens are all good sources of iron and other important nutrients like calcium and vitamin C.
  • Whole grains: quinoa, oatmeal, and fortified whole wheat bread are all good sources of iron.

It’s important to note that the type of iron found in plant-based foods (non-heme iron) is not absorbed as well as the type of iron found in animal-based foods (heme iron). To help your body absorb more iron from plant-based sources, it’s a good idea to pair iron-rich foods with sources of vitamin C, such as citrus fruits, strawberries, or bell peppers. Additionally, avoiding caffeine and tea during meals can also improve iron absorption.

  1. Vitamin B12 is important for the development of the fetal nervous system, brain, and spine, helping produce the myelin sheath that protects nerve fibers. It’s essential for the production of red blood cells, preventing anemia, and ensuring the fetus receives adequate oxygen. It plays a critical role in the synthesis of DNA, supports the immune system of both mom and her developing baby, and is involved in the production of energy in the body.

    Vegetarian sources of B12
    Vitamin B12 is naturally found in animal-based foods such as meat, fish, eggs, and dairy products. However, vegetarians and vegans can obtain vitamin B12 from fortified foods or supplements. Talk with your nutrition coach or ObGyn about whether you need a supplement or not to get adequate Vitamin B12.

With a prenatal dietitian, you can develop an individualized diet plan to ensure you and your developing baby get the necessary nutrients to support a healthy pregnancy, lactation, and postpartum healing. We love working with vegetarian and vegan families.