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Is It Safe To Be Vegetarian or Vegan During Pregnancy?

Katlyn Joy | 4, December 2013


According to a 2012 Gallup Poll, 7 percent of American women are vegetarian, and another 2 percent are vegan. But, is it safe for pregnant women to follow a vegetarian or vegan diet?

Many people express doubt or concern as to whether a pregnant woman can safely support her own and her baby's health on a diet restricted from meat, or more so, on a vegan diet free from all animal products. However, the American Dietetic Association (ADA) issued an official statement in 2009 on vegetarianism, "Well-planned vegetarian diets are appropriate for individuals during all stages of the life cycle, including pregnancy, lactation, infancy, childhood, and adolescence, and for athletes."

Specifically the ADA statement went on to express, "An evidence- based review showed that vegetarian diets can be nutritionally adequate in pregnancy and result in positive maternal and infant health outcomes."

It is probably not the best time to begin vegetarianism if you have been eating meat products up until your pregnancy began. While it is a safe diet, and even a healthful one, it is a diet that takes oversight. You have to ensure that you are getting enough of the right nutrients and if you are new to the lifestyle, you may have difficulty.

If you are determined to give it a shot, speak with a dietician to make sure you understand the requirements of such a diet.
For the first trimester, your calorie intake does not increase, but in the second trimester you need an additional 340 calories. In your last trimester you will need to boost your intake by 452 calories. Aim for the majority of your calories to come from healthy choices, not from high fat or sugary foods. A healthy vegetarian diet consists of:

  • Whole grains: 9 or more servings daily.
  • Vegetables: 4 or more servings daily, with at least one dark green leafy vegetable daily.
  • Fruits: 4 or more servings daily.
  • Legumes, Nondairy milks, and Soy Products: 5 to 6 servings daily.
  • Wheatgerm, nuts and seeds: 1 or 2 servings daily.

It's also important to include a source of vitamin B12, such as fortified cereal or nondairy milk, or prenatal vitamin daily. This is easy to get from red meat but for others it can be tricky, but the nutrient is vital for building red blood cells and neurological function. It is probable that vegetarians and vegans take a supplement of B12 in order to get the 2.6 daily micrograms required.

For pregnant vegans getting enough Vitamin D and calcium will be tricky but there are ways. For instance, drink milk or eat yogurt made from soy and hemp, or drink orange juice fortified with the nutrients. Food sources include greens like collard greens or mustard greens, tofu, seaweed, figs, dark green leafy veggies, broccoli, bok choy, sunflower seeds, tahini, and almond butter.

Folate or folic acid is important to prevent neural tube defects in babies, and can be found in cereals, whole grains and leafy greens. For best insurance policy, take your prenatal vitamin.

Iron must be boosted during pregnancy to match the increase in blood supply during pregnancy, and requires 27 milligrams daily. Often times, your prenatal vitamin will include iron since most women have trouble taking in adequate iron through diet alone. You can get iron through whole grains, nuts and legumes, dried fruit, dark green vegetables, and blackstrap molasses. It's important to not drink caffeine with your iron sources, nor should you take in dairy products with your iron rich foods. Dairy foods interfere with iron absorption as does caffeine. However, to aid absorption of iron, ingest both iron-rich and vitamin C rich foods at the same sitting.

Omega 3 fatty acids are important for brain and nervous system development and for those vegetarians who eat fish, cold water oily fish such as salmon is an excellent choice. Plant sources include walnuts, flaxseed oil, canola oil, dark green leafy vegetables, and algae.

Protein is easily obtained through meat products, but vegetarians and vegans aren't left out in the cold. To get the 71 grams needed daily, eat beans and legumes, whole grains, nuts and seeds, vegetables and soy products.

Zinc requirements are 11 milligrams daily for pregnant women, but since less zinc is absorbed in a vegetarian diet, supplementation for higher zinc levels may be needed. Zinc is found in whole grains, legumes and nuts, and whole grain cereals. To increase absorption soak and cook legumes, eat raised yeast breads, and combine zinc-rich foods with an acidic food source such as lemon juice or tomato sauce.

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