It’s National Vegetarian Week, so we’re taking a look at how to have a healthy vegetarian pregnancy
It is estimated that around 2% of the UK population is vegetarian, which is more than 1.2 million people. Vegetarians eat a diet that excludes meat and meat by-products, and there are several different types of vegetarian diets that might also exclude all of or a combination of fish or shellfish, dairy products and eggs.
If you are a vegetarian and have just found out that you are pregnant, or are planning on trying for a baby, you might be wondering if it’s safe to continue eating a vegetarian diet during pregnancy.
You might also be fielding questions from worried friends and relatives who think that you should revert to eating meat during the months that you are expecting and are concerned that you won’t have enough essential vitamins in your diet with a vegetarian pregnancy.
Is a vegetarian diet safe during pregnancy?
It is perfectly safe to continue eating a vegetarian diet during pregnancy – despite what well-meaning onlookers may try and tell you – as long as you eat a varied, balanced diet that contains the right building blocks such as protein, healthy fats and carbohydrates, you should get the vital vitamins and minerals that all women need for a healthy pregnancy. For you, they just need to be sourced from other places than meat.
Eating a healthy diet during pregnancy is important for your own health and the health of your developing baby. While you may be dealing with pregnancy cravings, aversions and also sickness, it's important for everyone to try and eat a varied and balanced diet during pregnancy, vegetarian or not. This will provide enough nutrients for your own health and in turn the development and growth of your baby during pregnancy.
What vitamins and minerals might I be deficient in during pregnancy if I’m a vegetarian?
If you’re a vegetarian, you need to make sure you get enough iron and vitamin B12 - which are mainly found in meat and fish – as well as vitamin D.
You also need to check you are eating enough protein, calcium, folate and iodine (as well as the types of and levels of vitamins recommended for all pregnant women, including folic acid – read more about the importance of folic acid during pregnancy).
How do I get enough iron in my pregnancy diet if I’m a vegetarian?
Iron is commonly found in meat and fish, so vegetarians will need to make sure they are getting this from other sources, especially during pregnancy.
Alternative sources of iron for vegetarians are:
- Dark green vegetables such as spinach and broccoli
- Wholemeal bread
- Fortified breakfast cereals (with added iron)
- Dried fruit, such as apricots
How do I get enough Vitamin B12 in my pregnancy diet if I’m a vegetarian?
Good sources of vitamin B12 for vegetarians are:
- Milk and cheese
- Fortified breakfast cereals
- Fortified unsweetened soya drinks
- Yeast extract, such as Marmite
How do I get enough Vitamin D during pregnancy in my vegetarian diet?
Although we source vitamin D from sunlight, it is found in egg yolk and foods specially fortified with vitamin D, including some breads, breakfast cereals and most fat spreads.
However, it is difficult to get enough from foods that naturally contain vitamin D and/or fortified foods alone. So it is recommended that pregnant and breastfeeding women should take a daily supplement containing 10 micrograms of vitamin D. You can read more in our guide to vitamin D during pregnancy)
Additional vitamins, minerals and food groups to be aware of during a vegetarian pregnancy:
Protein is essential for the growth and development of your baby’s muscles, tissues and cells. Meats including turkey and chicken are high protein foods. However, there are plenty of high protein vegetarian options available including lentils, beans and meat alternatives such as Quorn, nuts, well-cooked eggs and dairy. Try to include a protein-rich food at every meal.
Calcium is vital for the development of your baby’s bones, teeth and cells, so it’s important to ensure your diet is high in calcium. If you eat dairy products, then animal milks, cheese and yogurts are excellent high calcium foods. If not, vegetarian options are also good – just make sure your milk is enriched with added calcium (as some non-animal milks e.g. rice and oat milk are naturally lower in calcium). Pulses, tofu, nuts and sesame seeds, tahini and dried fruit are all good sources of calcium.
While there is no current recommendation in the UK to take iodine supplements during pregnancy, it is something to be aware of as evidence suggests many women in the UK are iodine deficient and that low levels during pregnancy may put the unborn child at risk.
Iodine deficiency is a particular issue during pregnancy and breastfeeding, when the body naturally needs more iodine as pregnant women must produce more thyroid hormone for her own and her baby’s needs, particularly in the early stages of pregnancy when the baby’s thyroid function has not yet developed. In addition, the body needs to compensate for first trimester iodine loss. There is also evidence that taking an additional supplement could potentially boost the IQ of infants, read more here).
Natural sources of iodine include milk, sea fish and shellfish but for vegetarians, it can also be found in plant foods, such as cereals and grains, but the levels vary depending on the amount of iodine in the soil where the plants are grown. Iodine is also included in the Pregnacare range.
Do I need to tell my doctor or midwife that I’m a vegetarian?
It’s likely that the question will come up during your booking-in appointment, and if not it’s something that you might want to mention to your doctor or midwife, so they can answer any questions you might have about having a healthy vegetarian pregnancy. They will probably mark this on your pregnancy notes.
Which of the Pregnacare supplements are suitable for vegetarians?
Once you've read our post on how to have a healthy vegetarian pregnancy, make sure you also read our interview with Clemmie Hooper aka Mother of Daughters about her new bookClemmie Hooper