What to eat for a vegetarian pregnancy


Following a vegetarian diet when pregnant is perfectly healthy, but it is important to get all the nutrients you and your baby need. As a vegetarian mum-to-be, you really need to concentrate on getting enough of a number of key nutrients, including protein, omega-3 fatty acids, iron, calcium, vitamin D, vitamin B12 and folate.

What is a vegetarian diet?

Vegetarians can enjoy a diet of grains, pulses, nuts, seeds, vegetables and fruit, with some also choosing to include dairy products such as cheese (made using vegetable rennet) as well as eggs.

What nutrients are important for a vegetarian pregnancy?

Protein is essential for the growth and development of your baby’s muscles, tissues and cells. There are plenty of plant-based sources of protein, including:

• beans and pulses
• nuts and seeds
• meat alternatives, such as Quorn and soya mince

Depending on the type of vegetarian diet you follow, you may also choose to include well-cooked eggs or dairy products. If you do eat dairy, be sure to choose products made from pasteurised milk.

Aim to include a protein-rich food at every meal.

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Read more about eating during pregnancy, including how to have a healthy, balanced diet in pregnancy, what your food cravings really mean and all your pregnancy diet myths debunked.

Omega-3 fatty acids

These are essential fats, which means you need to include them in your diet, because your body cannot make them organically. Sources of omega-3 fatty acids include:

• oily fish, like salmon, mackerel and sardines
• omega-3-enriched eggs
• soya
• linseeds, chia seeds and walnuts

During your pregnancy, omega-3 fatty acids are important for the development of your baby’s brain, eyes and central nervous system. More recent studies also suggest that a higher intake of omega-3 fatty acids during pregnancy may reduce the risk of allergies in babies and children.

Evidence suggests that plant sources of omega-3 fatty acids are not as rich as sources such as oily fish or algal forms, so speak to your GP if you are concerned.

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Iron

lentil bolognese Lentil ragu

During pregnancy, your body produces more blood to help deliver nutrients through the placenta to your baby. Following a vegetarian diet doesn’t necessarily mean your iron intake will be low, because there are many valuable plant sources. These include:

• dark green vegetables
• pulses, like beans, lentils and peas
• fortified breakfast cereals
• well-cooked eggs
• dried fruits
• wholemeal bread

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Vitamin C enhances the absorption of iron, so it’s a good idea to have a glass of orange juice (150ml), a couple of satsumas or an orange with or after a meal.

Calcium

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Calcium is vital for your baby’s bones, teeth and cells, so it’s important to ensure your diet includes adequate amounts. Dairy foods, including milk, cheese and yogurt, are useful sources. Plant-based alternatives can be equally good, but do check labels to ensure they are enriched with added calcium.

Other food sources include:

• Pulses like peas and lentils
• set tofu
• sesame seeds and tahini
• dried fruit

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Iodine

During pregnancy and breast-feeding, you have a higher need for the trace element iodine. This mineral is essential for the correct function of the thyroid gland and for your baby’s brain development. The main sources in the diet are fish, seafood and dairy foods. If you have a pre-existing thyroid condition or you follow a plant-based diet, you may need to use a supplement.

Some plant-based ‘milk’ alternatives are fortified with iodine, but check labels, because not all products are and amounts may vary. Look for ‘potassium iodide’ on the ingredients label.

Vitamin D

Woman with arms outstretched on a sunny beach

Regardless of how much calcium you eat, if you have low levels of vitamin D, your body won’t be able to absorb and use the calcium from your diet. A large number of us living in the UK have low vitamin D levels; this is because we produce vitamin D through the action of sunlight on the skin, and from March to October, the sun’s rays are not strong enough. We can get some vitamin D from food, the best sources being meat, oily fish and eggs.

All pregnant women, regardless of their dietary choices, are advised to take a vitamin D supplement to ensure they have enough vitamin D for their baby.

Vitamin B12

Vitamin B12 is found naturally in animal foods and is needed for growth, development and repair. If you regularly include eggs or dairy, you probably eat enough. However, if you avoid all animal products, you should look to fortified foods as a reliable source. As a vegetarian or vegan, you may obtain B12 from fortified yeast extract and breakfast cereals, fortified plant-based ‘milk’ alternatives or B12 supplements.

Folate

Folate is found in vegetables, in particular leafy greens. So, as long as you are eating a balanced vegetarian diet, you should be obtaining the folate you need. However, during pre-conception and the first 12 weeks of pregnancy, your need for folate is greater. For this reason, all women who are hoping to conceive or are in the first 12 weeks of pregnancy – vegetarian or not – are advised to supplement with 400mcg folic acid.

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This article was last reviewed on 7 February 2022 by Kerry Torrens

Kerry Torrens BSc. (Hons) PgCert MBANT is a Registered Nutritionist with a post graduate diploma in Personalised Nutrition & Nutritional Therapy. She is a member of the British Association for Nutrition and Lifestyle Medicine (BANT) and a member of the Guild of Food Writers. Over the last 15 years she has been a contributing author to a number of nutritional and cookery publications including BBC Good Food.

All health content on bbcgoodfood.com is provided for general information only, and should not be treated as a substitute for the medical advice of your own doctor or any other health care professional. If you have any concerns about your general health, you should contact your local health care provider. See our website terms and conditions for more information.

Are you following a vegetarian diet when pregnant? We would love to hear from you below.



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