All pregnant women need to pay careful attention to their diets, but vegetarians may face a few more challenges. Consulting a physician or registered dietitian knowledgeable in vegetarian nutrition can help you to overcome these challenges.
Mothers-to-be need sufficient nutrients to meet their own needs plus those for their baby's healthy development. The vegetarian diet can satisfy those needs if planned carefully. Because most vegetarians normally eat more than their bodies' minimum needs for protein, getting adequate amounts to cover the needs for pregnancy is rarely a problem.
Folate, important both before and during pregnancy, can be obtained from dark leafy greens, legumes, grain products and oranges. Products like tofu, soymilk, and breakfast cereals can be fortified with nutrients such as vitamins B12 and D. Due to the phytate content of nuts, legumes, and whole grains, their zinc content is not as well absorbed as zinc from animal sources. Joyce Cooper, RD, LDN, a dietitian at Rhode Island Hospital, suggests, "Sprouted grains, beans, seeds and yeast-leavened breads do not contain phytates and thus provide a source of zinc."
Vegetarians are at no greater risk for anemia than nonvegetarian pregnant women. Iron needed for the developing fetus and maternal blood supply can come from grains, beans, and leafy greens. Absorption can be improved by consuming a source of vitamin C, such as fresh fruits, many juices, or tomatoes with a meal. If anemia is diagnosed, the problem usually can be remedied with the addition of iron supplements.
Vegetarians need to ensure that they consume a source of omega-3 fatty acids. Linolenic acid, found in flaxseeds, walnuts, canola oil and soy products can be made into omega-3 fatty acids in the body as long as the diet does not have too many omega-6 fats like corn, safflower, and cottonseed oils or trans fats from deep-fat-fried foods and hydrogenated or partly hydrogenated oils.
Vegans, with their more limited food options, may need to take supplements. While they may reap the vitamin D that sunlight offers, they should discuss a vitamin supplement with their doctor so that they absorb enough calcium.
Cooper offers this assurance to vegetarian mothers-to-be: "Infants born to vegetarian or vegan women are of similar weights to nonvegetarians as long as the mothers consume adequate calories, protein, vitamins and minerals to achieve an adequate weight gain themselves."