Vegetarian Pregnancy: 6 Nutrients You Could Be Lacking

Vegetarian Pregnancy - 6 Nutrients You Could Be Lacking

Nutrition plays an essential role in fetal growth and development. I hope to encourage pregnant women that they can eat well on a variety of diets while pregnant and in this article I will focus on vegetarianism.

Many women choose vegetarianism for environmental, humane, or health reasons. Vegetarian diets are able to meet 100% of recommended daily intakes for macronutrients and micronutrients. Vegetarianism can take on a variety of forms. In this article I  will focus on lacto-ovo vegetarianism (consumption of fruit, vegetables, grains, eggs, and dairy), and veganism (consumption of only non-animal sources). You will learn what you need to know about important nutrients for your pregnancy and how to select foods that meet these needs.

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Nutritional requirements during pregnancy

Birth weight has been shown to correlate with maternal nutritional status. Recommended weight gain during pregnancy ranges from 15-40 pounds, depending on the usual body weight of the mother before becoming pregnant. 

According to the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, women need the following approximate additional overall calorie intake during pregnancy:

  • Second trimester: +350 calories in addition to normal eating.
  • Third trimester: +450 calories in addition to normal eating.
  • Twins: +670 calories in addition to normal eating.

It is also recommended to consume a minimum of 135-175 grams of carbohydrates during pregnancy and an additional 25 grams of protein. Important to note is the fact that weight gain may require different amounts of calories and protein depending on the mother’s level of physical activity and metabolic needs. The American Academy of Pediatrics also recommends a daily prenatal multivitamin in addition to a balanced diet.

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Now that I have reviewed nutrient needs for pregnancy, let’s focus on which of these nutrients could potentially be lacking in a vegetarian diet and vegetarian/vegan sources of these nutrients. 

1) Protein

Meat tends to be the most concentrated form of protein in our diets and it is a common belief that a vegetarian or vegan diet lacks in protein. However, some vegan sources of protein include nuts, beans, seeds, quinoa, tempeh, tofu, soymilk, and oats. Eggs and dairy including milk, cheese, and yogurt are also good sources of protein for vegetarians that choose non-meat animal products. At this time, protein intake recommendations do not change depending on the source of protein. 

2) Vitamin B12

One of the most common misconceptions is that vegetarian diets lack B12. It is recommended that vegans supplement with oral B12. According to the National Institute of Health, daily recommended intake for pregnant women is 2.6 micrograms daily. This can be obtained with a B12 over-the-counter vitamin supplement. Supplements include a higher amount because much of it will not be absorbed if taken orally. Other vegetarian food sources include milk & dairy products, and eggs. 

3) Calcium

Tofu and tempeh are great sources of calcium. Other sources include leafy greens such as spinach and collard greens, and beans such as white beans or chick peas.

4) Iron

Many people associate iron with red meat. It is true that red meat is a good source of iron, but there are plant forms of iron as well. Plant foods include beans, baked potatoes, spinach, whole grain bread, and some cereals that are fortified with iron. Important to note is that Iron requires a source of Vitamin C for absorption, such as citrus fruit, broccoli, or strawberries. 

5) Vitamin D

Ask your doctor about Vitamin D supplementation and if it is necessary for you. Vegetarian (but not vegan) sources of Vitamin D include dairy and eggs. If you are vegan, your body can produce Vitamin D when exposed to the sun. General recommendations vary, but about ten minutes outside several times a week should be enough sunlight to increase your body’s levels of Vitamin D. 

6) Zinc

Vegetarians may have higher zinc requirements. Vegetarian sources include beans, milk, and other dairy products.

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Final thoughts

In conclusion, a balanced vegetarian diet can meet complete nutrition needs during pregnancy and prove to be the best choice for some mothers and their growing child. If you are pregnant or planning for pregnancy, meet with your doctor and registered dietitian to discuss how your diet is meeting your individual pregnancy needs.

  • Livingstone, C. (2015), Zinc. Nutrition in Clinical Practice, 30: 371-382.
  • Thomas & Gutierrez (2005). American Dietetic Association Guide to Gestational Diabetes Mellitus. Chicago, IL: American Dietetic Association/Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.
  • Escott-Stump, Sylvia (2002). Nutrition and Diagnosis-Related Care. Baltimore, MD. Lippincot Williams & Wilkins.
  • Maha, Escott-Stump (2004). Krause’s Food, Nutrition, and Diet Therapy. Philadelphia, PA. Saunders/Elsevier.
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Meredith Byrne, RD, LDN, CNSC
Meredith Byrne is a clinical dietitian at Carolinas Medical Center in Charlotte, NC. Her focus is on cardiac, maternal, and oncology medical nutrition therapy, as well as disease-preventative nutrition. Meredith graduated from Virginia Tech with a degree in dietetics in 2006. She also completed her dietetic internship at Virginia Tech. Outside of work, she is an avid runner, backpacker, and loves international travel. Meredith lived overseas in eastern Asia for a year before moving to Charlotte in 2008 and had the opportunity to spend several weeks in Burkina Faso to help diagnose and treat pediatric malnutrition in 2013. She has completed six marathons including Boston and NYC. Meredith is passionate about helping others adapt their lifestyle to improve their health and knowledge of nutrition.