Pregnancy nutrition tips for vegetarians and vegans

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    Photo by iStock.
    Pregnant vegans and vegetarians need to plan balanced diets with enough calcium, vitamins and protein. Photo by iStock.

    When I became pregnant, I worried about my vegetarianism. My natural instinct was to ensure my baby had all the proper nutrients to thrive. Was vegetarianism safe for my baby?

    With the help of my OB-GYN, I learned I didn’t have to sacrifice my vegetarian lifestyle, but I needed to take extra steps — including taking vitamin supplements — to be sure my baby received proper nutrition.

    Susanne Trout, registered dietitian nutritionist at Phoenix Children’s Hospital, helps vegetarians and vegans plan balanced diets that include enough calcium, vitamins and protein for a healthy pregnancy and newborn.

    “For vegans, B-12 is key, since it is only found in animal products,” Trout says. Vegan expectant moms can find vitamin B-12 in soy milk, breakfast cereals or supplements. Iron and omega-3 fatty acids are equally important, she says.

    Pay attention to protein

    For pregnant vegetarians and vegans, eating enough protein can be a daily challenge. As an expectant mom, I tried to think of out-of-the box options when I looked for alternate sources of protein. Some days I’d gravitate toward tofu, but on days it didn’t appeal, I looked for other choices.

    Trout recommends seeking protein in nuts and nut butters, soy foods, seeds and seed butters, peas, lentils, beans, and — unexpectedly — grains. “One cup of cooked quinoa has 8 grams of protein, and brown rice contains 5 grams,” she says.

    Smart supplements

    Because you won’t receive all of the nutrients you need from a vegetarian or vegan diet, supplements are key to maintaining the right level of nourishment for your baby.

    Each pregnant woman is different, and it’s important to talk to your OB-GYN and nutritionist before taking any supplement. And don’t overdo supplements; too much of a good thing can be bad.

    Trout recommends taking a general prenatal multivitamin with minerals, and there are a few vegan brands, she notes. “I’ve had good experience with recommending food-based vitamins given that some pregnant women have trouble with nausea and vitamins can make this worse,” she says.

    Trout also warns women to be careful of “liquid and gummy-type vitamins, since they contain low levels of iron or do not contain iron at all.” Special concern must be dedicated to receiving the right amounts of calcium and vitamin D, especially if expectant moms are avoiding dairy.

    “If a prenatal multivitamin contains less than 600 international units, take an additional 500 to 1,000 units of vitamin D daily, especially for vegans,” she says.

    Also, try to incorporate fortified soy, almond and rice milk, which contain about 100 international units per 8 ounces. Trout also recommends 200 to 300 milligrams of DHA (a form of vitamin C). While DHA supplements typically are fish-based, Trout says vegans can use an algae-based supplement.

    General tips

    Trout encourages all vegetarian and vegan moms-to-be to read food labels and have an understanding of what their diets might be lacking. Always try to incorporate whole foods, she says, but if that’s not possible, consider a supplement with the guidance of a registered dietitian.

    Another helpful resource is choosemyplate.gov, a website where women can access a checklist by trimester for food groups based on recommended calorie levels that can help them plan their diet.

    For me, the angst I felt about my vegetarian diet proved unnecessary. Ultimately, incorporating these basic nutrition guidelines proved much easier than I anticipated, and I had to do very little to tweak my diet. And all that worrying vanished when I welcomed my healthy girl into the world.

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