Is a Vegetarian Diet Safe for Pregnant Women?

Northwestern Medicine
Women's Health September 25, 2013
Jessica PatrickThere’s no doubt about it, eating during pregnancy can be a challenge. Nausea, vomiting, food aversions, limited stomach room as the baby grows, and reflux are a few of the hurdles to overcome.

Then there are all the “rules” to try and remember: no sprouts, no unpasteurized cheese, no alcohol, limited caffeine and sugar substitutes, no fish high in mercury, etc. Being a vegetarian on top of all this can leave vegetarian moms-to-be with a challenge when it comes to eating a healthy well-balanced diet.

Being a dietitian I think about food and pairing the “right” foods together more than the average person. I also happen to be a pregnant vegetarian. During pregnancy especially, people want to know how I get enough protein. Most people don’t realize the average American far exceeds their daily protein needs. Getting adequate protein in a vegetarian diet is not hard as long as you’re mindful about what you’re eating.

Pregnant or lactating moms need about 70 grams of protein daily. This is most important during the second and third trimesters when the baby is growing at its fastest rate. In my first trimester, protein intake was the last of my concern; I was having enough trouble eating anything. I knew I had to get serious about protein when my body started to cooperate. I was intentional about adding diary, beans, soy products, eggs, peanut butter, or nuts to my meals/snacks. I didn’t start having larger servings of these foods; I just made sure they were part of my meals. One of my favorite and easiest high protein foods: Greek yogurt. One cup provides almost 1/3 of the daily protein need. For number people: one cup of milk has 8 grams of protein, 1 cup of beans/lentils around 15 grams and 1 egg has 6 grams of protein. The great thing about all these high protein foods is that they carry many other benefits. For instance dairy is rich in calcium and vitamin D while beans and lentils are high in fiber (to help with pregnancy induced constipation), vitamin B6 and iron.

A growing baby needs lots of different vitamins and minerals. Eating a variety of fruits, vegetables and whole grains will help provide both mom and baby with multiple vital nutrients. Health care providers are careful to make sure pregnant women are on a multivitamin with iron and folic acid. However, our bodies use most of the nutrients found in food better than the nutrients found in supplements. Supplements are good to cover any deficiencies, but it does not give us an excuse to slack on eating a healthy balanced diet. Research has shown that babies can taste the foods mom eats during pregnancy when they intake amniotic fluid. So pregnancy can be a great time to get your baby introduced to and used to nutritious foods!

Jessica Patrick has been a dietitian with Northwestern Lake Forest Hospital for five years and works with medical surgical patients, oncology and gastrointestinal disorders. Her daughter, Eden Grace, was born Sept. 19 and was 9 pounds 6 ounces and 19 1/2 inches.
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