6 Keys to a Healthy Vegetarian Pregnancy

A vegetarian pregnancy may seem challenging, but it can be managed normally if you follow some tips and with medical assistance.
6 Keys to a Healthy Vegetarian Pregnancy

Last update: 12 February, 2023

What you eat during your pregnancy has a great impact on fetal development and on the health of the newborn and the mother. In this regard, despite being declared safe, science emphasizes that a vegetarian pregnancy must be monitored by specialists in order to be healthy.

For example, throughout a vegetarian pregnancy, combinations and the supplementation of certain nutrients must be made in order to make the diet more effective. So, as taking care of mothers and their children is a priority, in this article, we’ll present some keys to keep in mind.

We must differentiate between vegetarian and vegan diets

Experts define the different types of vegetarian diets and point out that there’s a trend toward this style of eating. In Europe, by 2016, the vegetarian population increased by 8%, while, according to the Spanish Vegetarian Union, between 30% to 40% of vegetarians are vegans.

Vegetarian diets are those in which plant foods predominate, but some variants include dairy, eggs, or both. For example, this is the case of lacto-vegetarians, ovo-vegetarians, and ovo-lacto-vegetarians. On the other hand, a vegan diet only allows foods strictly of vegetable origin.

Is a vegetarian pregnancy safe?

According to the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, under normal conditions, when these diets are well combined, they provide all the energy and nutrients adequate for the proper functioning of the body. In addition, according to a group of specialists, they’re suitable and safe during all stages of the life cycle. Therefore, they can protect pregnancy from certain complications such as gestational diabetes, premature birth, and preeclampsia.

However, very strict vegetarian diets can eliminate the consumption of abundant nutrients. If we add to this the nutritional demands of pregnancy, then we must keep in mind the keys to achieving a healthy vegetarian pregnancy.

Take note of these keys to having a healthy vegetarian pregnancy

According to the journal Nutrition Update, deficiencies in certain nutrients can cause alterations. For example, congenital malformations, premature birth, low birth weight, or the increased likelihood of the child getting sick, among others. Let’s see what these priority nutrients are.

A pregnant woman eating a salad.
Vegetarian diets are safe during pregnancy, as long as the intake of all the necessary nutrients is guaranteed.

1. Ensure the intake of vitamin B12

Vitamin B12 is considered one of the critical micronutrients in pregnant women, as it’s fundamental for the correct development of the fetus and the newborn. Its deficiency is also related to preeclampsia, low birth weight, and neurological compromise in the baby, among others.

It’s one of the vitamins that’s exclusive to foods of animal origin, as few vegetables contain it, and in low proportion. Therefore, the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics recommends eating fortified foods or taking daily supplements of B12, whose dose will depend on blood values.

2. Supplement with iron and folic acid

It’s normal for any pregnant woman to be supplemented with iron. However, the need is greater in vegans and vegetarians. This is because the anti-nutrients in vegetables prevent a good absorption of this mineral. Therefore, only 3 to 20% is used, while the iron of animal origin, is able to be absorbed between 25 to 35%. Therefore, the following is recommended:

  • Supplement iron at the doses established by the health professional.
  • Increase the consumption of the main vegetables that contain iron.
  • Apply techniques that improve the availability of iron in vegetables, such as soaking, germination, and fermentation of grains and seeds.
  • Combine them with fruits and vegetables that are sources of vitamin C, as this improves their absorption.

Spinach, chard, cabbage, parsley, whole grains, and legumes that have been soaked, fermented, or sprouted (such as mung bean sprouts)  should prevail in the diet. Each meal of the day should be accompanied by strawberry, guava, kiwi, citrus fruits, or green smoothies, such as paprika with parsley, among others.

Although folic acid is found in good proportion in vegetables, its supplementation is also indicated in vegetarians, as a possible deficit can cause serious problems in the baby’s development.

3. Keep a close eye on zinc intake

Low levels of zinc during pregnancy can cause premature births and stunted growth in the baby. It’s a mineral that predominates in legumes, cereals, and seeds. However, like iron, it’s trapped by a compound called phytic acid, which prevents its absorption in the intestine.

Fortified cereals and supplementation are recommended during vegetarian pregnancy or when deficiency is suspected. Grain and cereal soaking techniques, sprouting, and increased consumption of sprouts also increase zinc absorption.

4. Meet calcium requirements

Calcium deficiency in pregnant women leads to loss of bone mass in the mother and weak bones in newborns. In vegetables, it’s trapped by oxalates and phytic acid, which affects its bioavailability to the body. Specialists suggest consuming vegetarian foods and beverages fortified with calcium, such as soy milk, almond milk, or oat milk. In addition, supplements with vitamin D are indicated.

Vitamin D improves the absorption and utilization of calcium. A good way to activate this vitamin is through exposure to solar radiation and by consuming fortified vegetables. Science has shown that supplementation with calcium and vitamin D reduces the risk of hypertension and preeclampsia in pregnant women.

The main sources of calcium in vegetables are cabbage, broccoli, nuts, sesame seeds, fortified tofu or soy cheese, and cauliflower. On the other hand, experts recommend that lacto-vegetarian pregnant mothers use fermented dairy products, such as yogurt and other probiotics.

A pregnant woman reading while eating a nut mix.
The consumption of nuts and sesame seeds during vegetarian pregnancy is highly recommended, as they’re sources of calcium.

5. Consume omega-3 fatty acids

The intake of omega-3 fatty acids, such as eicosapentaenoic (EPA) and docosahexaenoic (DHA) in vegans, has been found to be deficient. Both fatty acids contribute to the development of brain mass, retina, and cell membranes of the fetus. They’re found mainly in fish, crustaceans, shellfish, and eggs, but are almost absent in vegetables.

However, some of them and their derivatives contain the omega-3 fatty acid alpha linolenic acid (ALA), from which they can be synthesized. But with the precaution of reducing the consumption of omega-6 alpha-linolenic fatty acid, which prevents its synthesis. This is found in corn, soybean, sunflower, and mixed vegetable oils.

6. Maintain control with specialists

Both a woman’s obstetrician-gynecologist and a dietitian-nutritionist should maintain exhaustive control during a vegetarian pregnancy. Emphasis should be placed on critical nutrients, on meeting their requirements and planning a meal plan to compensate for them. Supplements and their doses will be in the hands of the attending physician.

Is it possible to have a healthy vegetarian pregnancy?

As in any other pregnancy, attention must be paid to the evolution and proper controls of the diet. For this, it’s essential to have the support of specialists in the medical and nutritional areas. By maintaining an adequate intake of the critical nutrients of vegetarianism, such as vitamin B12, calcium, vitamin D, iron, folic acid, zinc, and omega-3, it’s possible to achieve a healthy vegetarian pregnancy.

All cited sources were thoroughly reviewed by our team to ensure their quality, reliability, currency, and validity. The bibliography of this article was considered reliable and of academic or scientific accuracy.

  • Santana Vega , A. J. Carbajo Ferreira. Dieta vegetariana. Beneficios y riesgos nutricionales. Form Act Pediatr Aten Prim. 2016;9(4):161-7. Disponible en: https://fapap.es/files/639-1439-RUTA/04_Dieta_vegetariana.pdf
  • Melina V, Craig W, Levin S. Position of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics: Vegetarian Diets. J Acad Nutr Diet. 2016 Dec;116(12):1970-1980. doi: 10.1016/j.jand.2016.09.025. PMID: 27886704.
  • Piccoli GB, Clari R, Vigotti FN, Leone F, Attini R, Cabiddu G, Mauro G, Castelluccia N, Colombi N, Capizzi I, Pani A, Todros T, Avagnina P. Vegan-vegetarian diets in pregnancy: danger or panacea? A systematic narrative review. BJOG. 2015 Apr;122(5):623-33. doi: 10.1111/1471-0528.13280. Epub 2015 Jan 20. PMID: 25600902.
  • Mercedes Brosa , Nadia Curti , Agustina Basilio , Julia Gabrielli , Laura Beatriz López. LA ALIMENTACIÓN VEGETARIANA DURANTE EL EMBARAZO EN EL SIGLO XXI: UN ANÁLISIS DE LA LITERATURA. Actualización en Nutrición Vol. 20 Nº 1 Enero-marzo de 2019: 24-31. Disponible en: https://fi-admin.bvsalud.org/document/view/batq7#:~:text=Los%20estudios%20sugieren%20que%20las,diversos%20grados%20de%20compromiso%20neurol%C3%B3gico.
  • Lowensohn RI, Stadler DD, Naze C. Current Concepts of Maternal Nutrition. Obstet Gynecol Surv. 2016 Aug;71(7):413-26. doi: 10.1097/OGX.0000000000000329. PMID: 27436176; PMCID: PMC4949006.
  • Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. (2014). Practice Paper of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics: Nutrition and Lifestyle for a Healthy Pregnancy Outcome. Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics., 114(7), 1-13. Recuperado el 17 de Feb de 2017
  • National Institute of Health. Datos sobre el hierro. Disponible en: https://ods.od.nih.gov/pdf/factsheets/Iron-DatosEnEspanol.pdf

This text is provided for informational purposes only and does not replace consultation with a professional. If in doubt, consult your specialist.