This post opens a pregnancy nutrition series by  Chelsea Fuchs MS, a Dietetic Intern from Teachers College, Columbia University.

While there is a substantial amount of research on prenatal nutrition, little information exists for expectant moms following a vegetarian or vegan diet.  However, following a vegetarian/vegan meal plan while pregnant is perfectly safe, and the baby can still receive the proper nutrition needed to grow and develop.

Expectant vegetarian and vegan mothers should consume adequate protein, fat, and carbohydrates to meet macronutrient needs. Eating balanced meals and snacks throughout the day is also important for consuming the correct number of calories. Contrary to popular belief, calorie needs increase very modestly during pregnancy.

During the first trimester, a pregnant woman doesn’t need any additional calories at all, during the second trimester she needs an extra 340 calories per day, and during the third trimester an additional 452 calories.  By eating a balanced, healthful diet, an expectant mother can also maintain a steady rate of weight gain—2 to 4 pounds during the first trimester, and 1 pound per week during the second and third trimesters.

Protein needs.

Healthy sources of vegetarian protein should be the cornerstone of a prenatal eating plan.  Pregnant women need sufficient protein to support the production of new cells, hormones, and enzymes.  Another benefit of protein is that it helps to maintain fluid balance, and prevent dreaded pregnancy swelling! To meet daily protein needs, incorporate these foods into meals and snacks on a regular basis: nuts, peanut butter, legumes, soy products, quinoa, tofu, lentils, pistachios, tempeh, and hummus.

If you’re not following a vegan meal plan, make eggs a regular occurrence.  Eggs are loaded with indispensable amino acids, which the body cannot make itself, and are a terrific source of high quality protein.  Unlike most nutrients that can be met with prenatal vitamins, protein needs can only be met through diet.  Starting in the second trimester of pregnancy, protein needs increase by 25 grams, so aim to include 3 servings of high quality protein in the diet each day.

Fat is not an enemy

Another macronutrient to address is fat, the richest source of dietary energy available in the diet.  Seafood is a rich source of omega-3 fats, an unsaturated fat essential for heart health.  There is one type of omega-3 fat in particular, docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), that is crucial to a child’s brain development.  Pregnant women who are vegetarian and vegan are at risk for being deficient in DHA because not all of the DHA from plant-based sources can be converted into a usable form by the body.  Thus, it’s essential to focus on preformed DHA, found naturally in dietary supplements (ie: neuramine) and fortified foods, like soymilk or almond milk. In general, expectant mothers should do their best to limit artery-clogging saturated and trans fat, and focus on heart-healthy mono and polyunsaturated fats instead.

Carbs for energy

In addition to protein and fat, pregnant women need carbohydrates for energy.  Expectant mothers should choose wholesome, high quality carbohydrates like fruits, vegetables, legumes, and whole grains to support their growing baby.  Caution should be exercised around less nutritious carbohydrates like cookies, cake, candy, and other sugar-laden foods. Pregnant women need at least 175 grams of carbohydrate daily, which translates to about 45-65% of total caloric intake. When purchasing whole grains, look for products fortified with folate, an essential nutrient for preventing neural tube defects during fetal development. Your prenatal vitamin should also provide 100% of your daily folate needs.

As long as a prenatal vegetarian or vegan diet is based on nutritious, whole foods, it can definitely be a healthful choice for both mother and baby.  With a little bit of planning, expectant mothers can successfully meet macronutrient recommendations and deliver happy and healthy babies!

References: – pregnancy nutrition

Expect the Best, Your Guide to Healthy Eating Before, During & After Pregnancy by Elizabeth M. Ward, M.S., R.D.

Pregnancy: Overview and Nutrient Requirements, Lecture Notes by Dr. Lora A. Sporny