Vegetarian and Vegan Pregnancy Nutrition
Vegetarian and vegan moms-to-be can have perfectly safe and healthy pregnancies without giving up their lifestyles. You'll just need to carefully monitor some key nutrients. Eating a variety of foods including fruits, vegetables, plenty of leafy greens, whole-grain products, beans, nuts, and seeds virtually ensures that you'll meet most of your nutrient needs.
One nutrient that vegetarians and vegans are often asked about is protein. Although many foods provide some protein, the dried bean family is an especially good way to get protein. From vegetarian baked beans to chili (sin carne—without meat) to lentil soup, it's easy to add beans to your diet. Soy products such as tofu, tempeh, soymilk, textured vegetable protein (TVP), and edamame are also high in protein. Don't forget other foods including whole grains, nuts, nut butters, vegetables, potatoes, and seeds (pumpkin, sesame, sunflower, etc.) that are also great ways to add to your protein totals.
Iron and zinc needs are increased in a vegetarian and vegan diet because they are not absorbed as easily from beans and grains. There are some tricks to increase your absorption of these minerals. Including a food with vitamin C (citrus, tomatoes, cabbage, or broccoli, for instance) at most meals can markedly boost iron and zinc absorption. Good sources of iron and zinc for vegans include enriched breakfast cereals, wheat germ, soy products, dried beans, pumpkin and sunflower seeds, and dark chocolate.
Calcium and vitamin D are important for strong bones. Contrary to what you may have been told, you don't need to have a cow-milk mustache in order to get enough of these nutrients. Some vegetarian and vegan foods are fortified with calcium and vitamin D. Check labels of soymilk and other plant milks to make sure they have vitamin D and calcium added to them.
Calcium is also found in foods like dark leafy greens, tofu set with calcium salts, and dried figs. Vitamin D can also be produced by your skin when you're out in the sun. Vegan vitamin D supplements are another way to meet your vitamin D needs. And, of course, exercise is a key requirement for building strong bones.
Vitamin B12 cannot be reliably obtained from unfortified vegan foods, but there are vegan foods that are fortified with this important vitamin. Fortified foods include some brands of breakfast cereals, nutritional yeast, plant-based milks, and mock meats. If you're not sure whether or not you're getting enough vitamin B12 from fortified foods, a vitamin B12 supplement is a wise idea.
Fish and fish oils are often promoted as sources of omega-3 fatty acids. Vegetarians and vegans have other options. You can get omega-3s from flaxseeds, flax oil, walnuts, hempseeds, and other foods. There are even vegan versions of the omega-3 fatty acids found in fish oil—DHA and EPA.
By making smart food choices, it's easy to eat a healthy vegetarian or vegan diet—one that's good for you, for your baby-to-be, and for the planet.