How can I follow a vegetarian meal plan safely during pregnancy?
Types of vegetarians
- Vegan — This diet includes fruits, vegetables, beans, grains, seeds, and nuts. All animal sources of protein — including meat, poultry, fish, eggs, milk, cheese, and other dairy products — are excluded from the diet.
- Lacto-vegetarian — This diet includes dairy products in addition to the foods listed above in the vegan diet. Meat, poultry, fish, and eggs are excluded from the diet.
- Lacto-ovo-vegetarian — This diet includes dairy products and eggs in addition to the foods listed above in the vegan diet. Meat, poultry, and fish are excluded from the diet.
- Pescatarian — This diet includes dairy products and eggs in addition to the foods listed above in the vegan diet. Meat and poultry are excluded from the diet, but fish is permitted, focusing on the fattier omega-3 rich varieties.
Vegetarian nutrition during pregnancy
Research verifies that vegetarian diets can be nutritionally adequate in pregnancy.
During pregnancy, it is important to choose a variety of foods that provide enough protein, calories, and nutrients for you and your baby. Depending on the type of vegetarian meal plan you follow, you might need to adjust your eating habits. Follow the guidelines below for healthy vegetarian eating during pregnancy.
It is also important to choose safe foods and prepare foods safely because pregnant women are at increased risk of food poisoning.
Goals for healthy eating
- During pregnancy, you don't need extra calories for the first three months. During the last six months, normal-weight women need an extra 300 calories from nutrient-rich foods to help the baby grow.
- Eat a variety of foods to get all the nutrients you need. The "Vegetarian Foods to Choose" chart below provides the number of servings to eat from each food group every day.
- Choose foods high in complex carbohydrates and fiber such as whole grain breads, cereals, pasta, rice, fruits, and vegetables.
- Eat and drink at least four servings of calcium-rich foods a day to help ensure that you are getting 1200 mg of calcium in your daily diet. Sources of calcium include dairy products, fortified non-dairy milks (i.e., almond, soy, coconut), seafood with bones, leafy green vegetables, dried beans or peas, and tofu.
- Vitamin D will help your body use calcium. Adequate amounts of vitamin D can be obtained through exposure to the sun and in fortified milk, eggs, and fish. Vegans should receive 10 to 15 minutes of direct sunlight to the hands, face, or arms three times per week, or take a supplement as prescribed by their health care providers. Vitamin D3 (cholecalciferol) is of animal origin and is obtained through the ultraviolet irradiation of 7-dehydrocholesterol from lanolin. Vitamin D2 (ergocalciferol) is produced from the ultraviolet irradiation of ergosterol from yeast and is acceptable to vegans.
- Eat at least three servings of iron-rich foods per day to ensure you are getting 27 mg of iron in your daily diet. Sources of iron include enriched grain products (cereal, pasta, rice), eggs, leafy green vegetables, sweet potatoes, dried beans and peas, raisins, prunes, and peanuts.
- Choose at least one source of vitamin C every day. Sources of vitamin C include citrus fruits (oranges, grapefruits, lemons, limes), strawberries, honeydew, broccoli, cauliflower, Brussels sprouts, green peppers, baked potatoes, tomatoes, and mustard greens.
- Choose at least one source of folic acid every day. Sources of folic acid include whole grains, fortified cereals and grains, dark, green, leafy vegetables, and legumes such as lima beans, black beans, black-eyed peas, and chickpeas.
- Choose at least one source of vitamin A every other day. Sources of vitamin A include carrots, pumpkins, sweet potatoes, spinach, squash, turnip greens, beet greens, apricots, and cantaloupe.
- Choose at least one source of vitamin B12 a day. Vitamin B12 is found in animal products only. including fish and shellfish, eggs, and dairy products. No unfortified plant food contains any significant amount of active vitamin B12. For vegans, vitamin B12 must be obtained from regular use of vitamin B12-fortified foods, such as fortified soy and rice beverages, some breakfast cereals, and meat analogs. Vegans are at risk of vitamin B12 deficiency. For vegans, B12 can be obtained from nutritional yeast; otherwise, a daily vitamin B12 supplement is needed.
- Avoid alcohol during pregnancy. Alcohol has been linked to premature delivery and low birth weight babies. If you think you might have a problem with alcohol use, please talk to your health care provider so he or she can help protect you and your baby.
- Limit caffeine to no more than 300 mg per day (two 5-ounce cups of coffee, three 5-ounce cups of tea, or two 12-ounce glasses of caffeinated soda). Remember, chocolate contains caffeine — the amount of caffeine in a chocolate bar is equal to 1/4 cup of coffee.
- The use of non-nutritive or artificial sweeteners approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is acceptable during pregnancy. These FDA-approved sweeteners include aspartame and acesulfame-K. The use of saccharin is strongly discouraged during pregnancy because it can cross the placenta and might remain in fetal tissues. Talk with your health care provider about how much non-nutritive sweetener is acceptable during pregnancy.
- DO NOT DIET or try to lose weight during pregnancy. Both you and your baby need the proper nutrients in order to be healthy. Keep in mind that you will lose some weight the first week after your baby is born.
Breads and grains
9 or more servings/day
- 1 slice of bread
- 1/2 bagel or English muffin
- 1 rice cake
- 6 crackers (such as matzo, bread sticks, rye crisps, saltines, or 3 graham crackers)
- 3/4 cup ready-to-eat cereal
- 1/2 cup pasta or rice
- Small plain baked potato
- 1 small pancake
- 1 6-inch tortilla
Fruits and vegetables
4 or more servings/day of vegetables; 3 or more servings of fruit
- 3/4 cup fruit juice or 1/2 cup vegetable juice
- 1 piece fresh fruit
- 1 melon wedge
- 1/2 cup chopped, cooked, or canned fruit
- 1/2 cup cooked or canned vegetables
- 1 cup chopped, uncooked vegetables
4 or more servings/day
- 1 cup low-fat milk or fortified almond, coconut, or soy milk
- 1 cup low-fat yogurt
- 1 1/2 ounces of cheese
- 1/2 cup of cottage cheese
3 servings per day
- 1/2 cup cooked dried beans or peas
- 1/2 cup tofu
- 1/4 cup nuts or seeds
- 2 tablespoons of peanut butter
- 1 egg or 2 egg whites
Fats and oils (healthy liquid unsaturated oils preferred)
Approximately 8-12 tsp./day
- Olive, sesame, grapeseed, flaxseed, canola, or peanut oils
- Tub margarine, salad dressings, and spreads made from trans fat-free liquid oils (or water) as the first ingredient
- 2 tablespoons nuts
Sweets and snacks
In limited amounts
- Fat-free baked goods
- Sherbet, sorbet, Italian ice, popsicles
- Low-fat frozen yogurt
- Angel food cake
- Fig bars
- Jelly beans, hard candy
- Plain popcorn
Seafood nutrition and seafood safety
Seafood is a rich source of omega-3 fatty acids, a type of essential fatty acid. Many studies suggest that these fats, particularly eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), are beneficial to both moms and the babies. Eating seafood is encouraged and supported by the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics and the American College of Obstetrics and Gynecologists.
Recommended intake goals are for 8-12 ounces per week of low-mercury, low-contaminant seafood. For food safety information for locally caught fish, please contact the local health department or the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA.gov).
Seafood to eat and to avoid
Eat (eight to 12 ounces per week)
- Bass (striped and freshwater)
- Canned LIGHT tuna
LIMIT to 6 ounces per week
- Albacore or "white" tuna; fresh bluefin or yellowfin
Avoid: Do NOT eat
- King mackerel
- Raw fish (including sushi, sashimi, ceviche, and carpaccio) due to food poisoning risk
- Refrigerated smoked seafood due to listeria risk
Food safety is important for all pregnant women, including vegetarians. Produce, grains, and dairy can pose risks.
Take the following precautions for these food groups:
- Produce — Wash all fruits and vegetables before cutting them. Do not consume unpasteurized juices (fruit or vegetable) or raw bean, alfalfa, or clover sprouts.
- Grains — Do not eat raw grains or raw sprouted grains.
- Protein foods — Do not eat raw or undercooked eggs, tofu, miso and tempeh products (unless cooked to more than 140 degrees in a dish), or raw nuts.
- Dairy — Do not consume unpasteurized milk or cheeses made from unpasteurized milk (unless cooked to more than 140 degrees), unrefrigerated dairy desserts/cream, or cheese-filled pastries and pies.
- Beverages — Do not consume mate tea or sun tea (sun-brewed), or iced tea brewed with warm or cold water.
- Miscellaneous — Do not consume raw or unpasteurized honey, raw yeast, raw cookie dough/cake batter, any outdated or moldy foods, or salad dressings made with raw egg.