Rest easy, all you pregnant vegans and vegetarians out there: Medical experts, including the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists and the American Dietetic Association (ADA), have given you the green light to continue your current way of eating— as long as it’s well-planned. “You can have a healthy pregnancy on such a diet,” says Dawn Jackson Blatner, R.D., an ADA spokeswoman who sees pregnant vegetarians in her private practice.
“You just have to do it right.”
A vegetarian (meat-free) or vegan (no animal products, not even milk or eggs) diet can help prevent obesity and chronic illnesses, including heart disease, cancer and diabetes. It’s also more Earth-friendly than the typical American carnivore’s diet. That said, “Pregnancy is not the right time to become a vegetarian if you aren’t one already,” says Lara Field, M.S., R.D., a dietitian at the University of Chicago Medical Center who counsels pregnant women.
Here’s the reason: The risks of nutritional deficiencies are more pronounced with a vegetarian diet, and pregnancy is a time when you need more of certain vitamins and minerals. If you’ve been eating animal products, quitting now would just limit your options, Field says.
In addition to taking a high-quality prenatal vitamin, here’s how you can make up for any nutritional weak links if you do decide to stay meat-free during your pregnancy.
Protein This nutrient is vital for cell growth and development—yours as well as your developing baby’s—and you need about 70 grams every day right now. Beans can provide much of what you need. “Beans are the magic bullet for vegetarians and vegans,” says Blatner, who is also the author of The Flexitarian Diet (McGraw Hill). “Along with lots of protein, beans provide iron and zinc.” Zinc is also necessary for cell growth and normal fetal development.
To get the protein you need, simply replace animal products with any type of beans, including soybean products like tempeh and tofu; just keep in mind that experts advise limiting your soy intake to one or two servings daily during pregnancy. In recipes, substitute one-half cup of beans for every 3 ounces of meat.
And here’s a bonus if you’re concerned about putting on too much weight during your pregnancy: Beans are a low-calorie protein source: 1 cup of soybeans has 298 calories and 29 grams of protein; 1 cup of lentils has 226 calories and 18 grams of protein; 1 cup of pintos has 245 calories and 15 grams of protein; and 1 cup of firm tofu has 176 calories and 20 grams of protein.
Don’t forget about nuts, too: These are also rich sources of protein (and healthy fats), as are low-fat dairy foods—milk, yogurt and cheese.
A word of advice: Don’t rely too heavily on cheese or faux burgers to replace meat in your diet. Why? Veggie “meats” are usually laden with sodium, and cheese is very high in saturated fat. “Vegetarian and vegan diets are perceived to have a ‘health halo’ around them,” says Blatner. “But if you’re not eating the right foods, these diets can be unhealthy, too.”
Iron This mineral, which helps red blood cells deliver oxygen to the fetus, also protects you from anemia, a common problem during pregnancy even among meat eaters. According to Blatner, pregnant vegetarians and vegans need as much as 50 milligrams of iron daily. Besides beans, other vegetarian iron sources include iron-fortified cereals, prune juice, black-strap molasses, spinach and raisins.
To help your body absorb the iron contained in foods, eat vitamin-C- rich foods (such as red peppers, citrus fruits and strawberries) and sprouted grains along with them. “Sprouting decreases the compounds that make it more difficult for your body to absorb iron,” Blatner explains.
Vitamin B12 This vitamin, which is required for proper red blood cell formation and neurological function, is most abundant in animal products, which makes getting enough of it a little tricky for vegetarians. Though there are a few nonmeat sources of B 12 (fortified breakfast cereals, for example), the ADA recommends that both vegans and lacto-ovo vegetarians (those who eat eggs and dairy products) take B 12 supplements to help them get the 2.6 micrograms daily needed during pregnancy.
Calcium & vitamin D Dairy products are chock-full of these baby bone-building nutrients, but vegans will have to turn elsewhere to get the 1,000 milligrams of calcium and 400 IU of vitamin D they need daily. “Vegans can eat dairy alternatives—like milk and yogurt made with soy and hemp—as well as orange juice,” Field suggests, “but read labels to make sure they’re fortified with calcium and vitamin D.” Fortified tofu, seaweed, figs, collard greens and mustard greens are good vegan sources of calcium.
Omega-3 fatty acids Cold-water oily fish, such as salmon, are the main sources of these healthy fats, which enhance fetal brain and nervous system development. Good plant sources include algae, canola and flaxseed oils, walnuts and leafy green vegetables. Supplements are also safe during pregnancy. The recommended dietary allowance (RDA) for pregnant women is 1.4 grams daily, but up to 3 grams of fish oil daily is probably safe. Vegan omega-3 sup- plements are also available.
3 SMART VEGETARIAN SNACKS
■ VANILLA HEMP MILK 1 cup contains at least 25 percent of your daily requirements for calcium and vitamins D and B 12.
■ PLAIN YOGURT 8 ounces of low-fat unsweetened yogurt contain 12 grams of protein and 45 percent of your calcium needs.
■ LENTIL SOUP 1 cup contains 9 grams of protein and 4 milligrams of iron.