Pregnant Woman preparring food in the kitchen for a vegan or vegetarian pregnancy

Are you worried about staying healthy while pregnant and still maintaining a vegetarian or vegan diet? There might even be some people who have told you it’s not possible! The truth is you can have a very healthy pregnancy while being vegetarian or vegan, if done properly.

In today’s blog I am sharing some main things to consider when it comes to your diet and health once becoming pregnant and still wanting to follow a plant based diet.

What nutrients do I need to consider while being pregnant and vegetarian or vegan?

There are a few key nutritional requirements for vegetarians and vegans in general, but they become especially important during pregnancy.

  • Calories
  • Iron
  • Vitamin B12
  • Folate
  • Protein

Calories

Caloric intake becomes especially important during the second and third trimesters of pregnancy when you need additional calories to support your baby’s growth and development in utero. Eating a wide variety of foods will help ensure you are getting enough nutrients and calories each day.

pregnant women preparing healthy snacks for pregnancy nutrition

HOW MANY EXTRA CALORIES DO I NEED? During the first trimester you don’t need any additional calories, instead focus on eating nutritious foods as much as possible to stay healthy and feel your best (when you will likely be feeling more tired than normal).

Experiencing a lot of nausea? Try to get in nutrient dense meals at the time of day you feel best. Also, try a high calorie smoothie (check out the link for recipes), sometimes a liquid meal is easier to get down.  In addition, sometimes smaller more frequent meals throughout the day help reduce nausea. Do your best to eat when you can and listen to what your body needs.

During the second trimester you need approximately 350 more calories each day and 450-500 during the third trimester. A great way to add in these extra calories is by upping your typical portions during your meals or adding an extra few snacks throughout your day. 

Iron

Iron-deficiency anemia is the number one micronutrient deficiency among women of child bearing age, therefore extra care is needed for those following a vegetarian or vegan diet. During pregnancy your blood volume increases by about 50%, which means you are producing more red blood cells to support baby’s growth and need more iron to make this happen. Iron from plant-based sources is non-heme and less bioavailable than heme iron from animal source, making it extra important to ensure you are getting enough iron in your meals but also helping support its absorption.

HOW DO I SUPPORT IRON ABSORPTION:

  • Eat plenty of vitamin C rich foods to ensure adequate iron absorption
  • Decrease tannin-containing beverages (coffee, black tea) as these decrease iron bioavailability (especially when eating an iron rich meal)
  • Decrease oxalic acids (found in spinach, swiss chard, etc.) to avoid iron malabsorption
  • Phytates (found in whole grains, nuts/seeds and legumes) bind to iron, slowing its absorption. Be mindful about how much of this is in your iron rich meal, as it doesn’t need to be avoided completely.
  • Calcium also slows iron absorption, so again be mindful of how much calcium is in your meal and might be counteracting with your iron intake. 

There is the option of supplementing with additional iron, but be sure to keep taking your prenatal. 

PLANT BASED IRON FOOD SOURCES INCLUDE:

  • Legumes (lentils, soybeans, chickpeas, kidney beans, etc.)
  • Grains (brown rice, oats, quinoa, barley)
  • Vegetables (think GREEN, swiss chard, spinach, collard greens)
  • Nuts and seeds (pumpkin, sunflower, cashew, almonds, hemp)
  • Seaweed
  • Dried fruits

Folate (B9) and Vitamin B12

pregnant woman deep in thought

Vitamin B12 and folate work together to aid in the development and growth of your baby, including DNA synthesis, brain development and the forming of red blood cells.
Having enough vitamin B12 and folate helps prevent neural tube defects and other complications associated with spine and brain development.
Your prenatal multivitamin should contain both folate and vitamin B12, however if your doctor or health care provider is monitoring your blood, they may suggest an additional supplement.

Vegetarians and vegans are especially at risk for B12 deficiency
because the large majority of Vitamin B12 sources come from animal products. Be sure to check in with your health care provider to make sure you are getting enough!

Plant based foods that contain folate:

  • Legumes
  • Asparagus
  • Leafy Greens
  • Beets
  • Nuts and seeds​
  • Citrus fruits
  • Fortified grains
  • Wheat germ
  • Avocado 

Plant based foods that contain vitamin B12:

  • Fortified vitamin B12 soy milk
  • Nutritional yeast
  • Fortified cereals 

Protein

During pregnancy your body needs protein more than it ever did before! That’s because your body is busy building a baby and protein is the macronutrient used to build new cells. In fact, women’s protein needs increase during the second and third trimesters of pregnancy, with the aim being between 75-100 grams of protein each day.
When following a vegetarian or vegan diet, getting enough protein could be a challenge. One tip is to ensure you are eating both grains and legumes throughout the day, this will help ensure you are getting complete proteins in your diet (meaning they contain all essential amino acids).

GREAT PLANT BASED PROTEIN SOURCES:

  • Beans (split peas, kidney beans, lentils, chickpeas, etc.)
  • Quinoa
  • Oats
  • Whole grain breads and cereals
  • Nuts and seeds (even nut butters)
  • Tofu
  • Soy milk
  • TVP (texturized vegetable protein, found in veggie burgers and other veggie ‘meats’)
  • Edamame 

Additional key nutrients to consider include:  calcium, zinc, vitamin D, and essential fatty acids.

Calcium

Happy young pregnant woman in stylish black dress and modern earring, holding belly bump and posing in light. Fashionable mom, hugging belly, waiting for baby. Stylish Motherhood concept

Calcium works with vitamin D to help support you and baby’s bone health. Interestingly, some research has shown that exercise can help improve calcium absorption. We commonly think of dairy products when thinking about calcium (yogurt, milks, cheese, etc.). However, many plant based dairy alternatives like coconut yogurt, almond milk, and dairy free cheeses are also fortified with calcium.

Where else can you find calcium? 

  • Dark green vegetables (spinach, kale, collard greens, swiss chard)
  • Figs
  • Sesame seeds
  • Some fortified tofu & soy products

Zinc

Needed for cell growth and the production of DNA, zinc becomes especially important during pregnancy because your baby is growing so rapidly. In addition, zinc needs increase during breastfeeding (something to think about during the postnatal period).

Plant based food sources of zinc:

  • Fortified cereals, breads, or other grains
  • Tofu
  • Wheat germ
  • Oatmeal
  • Hemp seeds (and other nuts and seeds)

Did you know that zinc absorption improves by soaking legumes, yeast bread and sprouted seeds and it is increased when eaten with acidic food?

  • Zinc absorption improves by soaking legumes, yeast bread and sprouted seeds
  • Zinc absorption increased when eaten with acidic foods

Vitamin D

Vitamin D is essential for the bone and teeth formation of your baby. Unfortunately, there are little food sources that contain substantial amounts of vitamin D, with the best sources being milk and fish. If you are vegetarian or vegan, you should aim to consume at least 1 cup of a plant based beverage fortified with vitamin D daily along with aiming to get some sun exposure (about 10 minutes on your hands daily)….but we all know this can be challenging with Canadian winters! Another option could be supplementation, in addition to your prenatal vitamin. Check with your health care professional to see if this would be a good idea for you and your pregnancy.

Essential Fatty Acids

Include omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids. Both these essential fatty acids compete for absorption and therefore a balanced intake ratio is needed. Typically, in North American diets we tend to under consume omega-3s, which play a critical role in child cognitive functioning, nervous system and cell membrane development.
Often vegetarians & vegans get enough omega-6s from vegetable oils but not enough omega-3s.

Where can you find plant based sources of omega-3 fatty acids? 

  • Ground flaxseed or flaxseed oil
  • Nuts and seeds
  • Hemp seeds
  • Algae based supplements for omega-3s 

Bottom Line

Many of our nutrient needs increase during pregnancy as we are supporting another life. If you are vegetarian or vegan you will need to ensure you are meeting nutrient requirements, especially for the nutrients mentioned above. In addition, it will be extremely important to take your prenatal supplement regularly, with potential additional supplements for vitamin B12 and vitamin D.

Aim to consume a variety of nutrient dense foods and don’t restrict calories, that growing bump needs that extra support.

If you are concerned about your diet during pregnancy or needed help ensuring you are getting the nutrients you and your baby needs while following a plant based diet, consider consulting with someone like myself (a registered dietitian nutritionist) or another health care provider.

Some healthy snack ideas include:

  • 1 cup edamame beans, lightly salted
  • 2 pieces dried fruit (e.g., figs or mango slices) with ¼ cup nuts or seeds
  • Almond or peanut butter & whole grain crackers/toast
  • Dried Coconut Crisps
  • Guacamole & tortilla chips/ crackers
  • Roasted chickpeas (click here for recipe)
  • High fibre, low sugar cereal/granola & soy/almond milk
  • Hummus & veggies
  • Oatmeal with fruit, nuts, seeds
  • Peanut butter toast with banana, topped with chia or hemp seeds for an added nutrient boost 

CHECK OUT THESE FREE & DELICIOUS RECIPES:


Angela Wallace is a registered dietitian nutritionist, family food expert, certified personal trainer and is a valued member of the Lifetime of Love Doula team. She specializes in women’s health, with a focus on weight loss and digestive conditions. She uses a ‘non-dieting approach’ with her ultimate goals being to help people create healthy routines that work for them and create a healthy relationship with food. www.eatrightfeelright.ca

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