Flex Your Diet

Whether you're a vegetarian or a meat eater, shifting the way you eat during pregnancy can give you more of the nutrients you and your developing baby need. Introducing The Flexitarian Diet.


Most of us are creatures of habit, piling the same foods into our grocery carts each week. But pregnancy, with its increased nutritional requirements and wacky cravings and aversions, may require venturing into new nutritional territory. "Pregnancy is the time to be flexible with your eating habits," says nutrition and culinary consultant Kim Galeaz, R.D., who developed the recipes here (and the accompanying three-day meal plan, which you can find at fitpregnancy .com/flexyourdiet) to satisfy the needs and palates of carnivores and vegetarians alike.

The trick is to accommodate your body's changing needs while "still keeping your wits about you," says nutritionist Elizabeth Somer, M.A., R.D., author of Nutrition for a Healthy Pregnancy (Owl Paperbacks). "Your calorie needs have barely gone up, but your nutrient needs have skyrocketed."

Galeaz designed what we call The Flexitarian Prenatal Diet, with tips for those who eat meat regularly and those who don't eat it at all. The recipes and online meal plan offer both meat and vegetarian options, plus snack ideas to demonstrate just how flexible your diet can be.

Tips For Carnivores

Research shows that more women are entering pregnancy overweight and then gaining more weight than they should, increasing their risk for obesity, gestational diabetes, too-large babies and other problems. Replacing some of the meat on your plate with fruits, vegetables, beans and whole grains can help you control your weight gain while providing important nutrients that your daily supplement does not include.

"A prenatal vitamin won't have the 12,000 phytochemicals that are in fruits and vegetables," explains Somer. Fruits, vegetables, beans and whole grains also are high in fiber, which helps keep you full, regulates your blood sugar and cholesterol, and prevents constipation, a common pregnancy ailment.

If you are a heavy meat eater, you needn't go cold turkey. Instead, limit each meat serving to about 3 ounces (cooked), approximately the size of a deck of cards. Think of it as a condiment. Says Galeaz, "Treat meat as a decoration rather than as the focal point of your plate."

By loading up your meat dishes with extra vegetables, you retain the meat's iron, zinc and flavor while limiting saturated fat and calories. So pack your beef stew with carrots, red peppers and sweet potatoes, and add a box of frozen peas or spinach to meat-based soups and casseroles. (Yes, frozen veggies are as nutritious as fresh.)

Add vegetables such as chopped, diced or shredded onions, scallions, green peppers, carrots and tomatoes to your tuna or chicken salad. If you think vegetable side dishes are a bore, perk up your broccoli, spinach or zucchini with salt-free seasonings, spices, herb- or sesame-infused oil, or onion or garlic powder.

Fill up on fruit
It's even easier to sneak fruit into your diet, and it gives you fiber, folate and vitamin C. For your breakfast, make a smoothie by blending frozen berries with half a banana and vanilla soymilk. Add dried cherries, sliced pears or mandarin oranges to your lunchtime salad, and slip apple slices into your ham-and-low-fat-cheese pita pocket.

For dinner, cook your pork tenderloin in an iron skillet (for extra iron) with sliced pears or canned peaches. Experiment with exotic fruits such as cherimoya and kiwano to boost both flavor and nutrients.

Tips For Vegetarians

If you're a vegetarian, don't be surprised (or alarmed) if you start to crave meat during pregnancy, Somer says. "Rather than fight your craving, roll with it and make healthy choices." Though meat is not essential for mom or baby, lean meats are a convenient way to meet your increased requirements for protein, iron and zinc. Both beef and pork also contain valuable B vitamins, including B6, B12, niacin, riboflavin and thiamin. "The beauty of meat is that it delivers many nutrients in a small package," Galeaz says. For example, 3 ounces of skinless chicken breast contains about 25 grams of protein, compared to 15 grams in one cup of black beans and 8 grams in 2 tablespoons of peanut butter.

Maximize your iron intake
The iron in meat is more readily absorbed and utilized in your body than the iron in vegetables and legumes (peas and beans)—30 percent versus only about five to 10 percent, according to Somer. Zinc, a mineral that is critical for preventing birth defects and premature delivery, is likewise better absorbed from meat and seafood than from legumes, nuts and whole grains.

If you start eating red meat, choose lean cuts, typically anything that's labeled "round" or "loin," such as eye of round, top round, sirloin, tenderloin, and lean ground sirloin or ground round.

Small portions of meat, such as cubes of chicken breast in your salads or strips of marinated beef for your fajitas, will satisfy your cravings and your mineral needs while keeping calories and saturated fat under control.

Whether you end up adding meat to your diet or subtracting half the meatballs from your spaghetti, consider the changes another adventure in pregnancy. Maybe those changes will even stick.

Tips For A Safe Vegetarian Or Vegan Pregnancy

Vegetarian or vegan pregnancies can be just as healthful for mom and baby; simply pay extra attention to your intake of the following important nutrients:

Calcium and vitamin D If you don't eat dairy foods, rely on calcium- and vitamin D-fortified soymilk, orange juice and tofu.

Iron To boost absorption of the iron in fruits, vegetables, grains and nuts, combine iron-rich foods (lentils, soybeans, spinach and tofu are the best) with foods high in vitamin C, such as bell peppers, broccoli, tomatoes and citrus fruits. Also talk to your doctor about taking an iron supplement.

Omega-3 fatty acids Omega-3s are important for cardiovascular health and fetal brain and eye development. Many experts recommend that pregnant vegans take a DHA supplement made from microalgae.

Protein Legumes and first-generation soy products such as tofu and tempeh will help you get your extra 20 grams to 25 grams of protein per day.

Vitamin B12 Prenatal vitamins and fortified foods such as soymilk, meat substitutes, energy bars and breakfast cereals are the only reliable vegan sources of vitamin B12.

The Flexitarian Meal Plan

Flexitarian Recipes
- Chinese Five-Spice Pork Tenderloin
- Chipotle Beef Burgers
- Salmon and Portobello Mushroom Frittata
- Smart Snacks