Pregnant lady preparing vegan dinner

As dietitians in private practice, we’re seeing the number of people following vegan, vegetarian and plant-based diets on the rise. This may be due to personal preferences, health concerns and ethical reasons, as well as sustainability or reasons related to climate change.

While it can be perfectly safe to follow this style of eating during pregnancy and it can be healthy and nutritionally adequate, it is also important to be aware of key nutrients that may be missing, which are essential for a healthy pregnancy and the optimal growth of your little bundle of joy. A well-planned vegetarian/vegan diet is therefore important while pregnant.

What is the difference between vegan/vegetarian diets?

Vegan: Excludes meat, fish, eggs, dairy products, honey and all foods and products of animal origin

Vegetarian: Excludes meat, poultry and fish but may include animal by-products such as eggs or dairy products

  • Lacto-ovo vegetarian: Meat, poultry and fish are excluded but the person may include dairy, dairy products and eggs
  • Lacto-vegetarian: Meat, fish, poultry and eggs are excluded but the person may include milk and dairy products such as cheese
  • Ovo-vegetarian: Meat, fish and dairy products are excluded but the person may include eggs
  • Semi-vegetarian/flexitarian: Follow a vegetarian-style diet for the main purpose of good health without following a specific ideology

“Most gynaes recommend that you take prenatal vitamins throughout your pregnancy regardless of what style of eating you follow.”

What nutrients should I focus on if I am vegan/vegetarian while pregnant?

Protein

We know that protein is important during pregnancy to support the growth of the foetus. Protein requirements increase during pregnancy from being the same as a non-pregnant woman in the first trimester to increasing and being the highest in the last trimester. The amino-acid profile of plant-based proteins compared to animal proteins is very different. A vegetarian/vegan woman should eat more protein compared to a pregnant woman who is eating meat and meat products.

Foods to include:

  • Legumes such as chickpeas, lentils, beans (soy, kidney baked), split peas
  • Soy products such as soy milk, yoghurt and tofu
  • Nuts, nut butters and seeds
  • Whole-grain foods such as brown rice, quinoa, polenta, buckwheat, bulgur wheat
  • Dairy and eggs for those who are including them

Iron

Additional iron is necessary during pregnancy to support the increase in blood volume and other physiological functions. Include iron-rich foods such as dried beans, legumes, dried fruit, soy products, iron-fortified cereals, spinach, eggs (if including), tofu, brown rice, almonds, dried apricots, prunes, raisins. Vitamin C enhances iron absorption and therefore iron-rich foods should be paired with vitamin C-rich foods (coloured bell peppers, citrus fruits such as oranges, kiwi, strawberries, grapefruit, tomato)

For example, egg omelette with tomato and red pepper or a strawberry and spinach salad

Calcium

Important for bone growth and development, calcium is found in milk products. Plant sources include broccoli, kale, bok choy, sesame seeds, soy products, almonds and almond butter.

Vitamin D

Important for growth of teeth and bones, vitamin D is found mainly in animal foods such as fish, eggs and dairy products and it can also be absorbed from the sun. Some foods are fortified with vitamin D such as cow’s milk, soy milk and some breakfast cereals.

Vitamin B12

Important for the growth of nerve and blood cells, vitamin B12 is naturally found in foods such as meat, fish, milk. Plant-based foods that are fortified include nutritional yeast, cereal, soy milk and tofu.

Folate

Folate is important for preventing birth defects related to the brain or spinal cord such as spinal bifida. Food sources include beans, chickpeas, green leafy vegetables and citrus fruits.

Omega 3

Omega 3 provides benefit to the mom and growing baby. Food sources include oily fish which is often avoided or limited during pregnancy due to the high mercury content. Plant food sources include flax seeds, flaxseed oil, walnuts, chia seeds, canola and soybean oil.

Zinc

Zinc is an important mineral related to your baby’s DNA and gene expression. The highest concentrations of zinc can be found in lean red meat, whole-grain cereals and legumes. Other sources of zinc for vegetarians include tofu, tempeh, nuts, seeds, fortified breakfast cereals and dairy products. The absorption of zinc can be improved by eating yeast-based bread, sourdough bread, sprouts and pre-soaked legumes.

Pregnant lady taking iron supplements with water

What about supplementation?

Most gynaes recommend that you take prenatal vitamins throughout your pregnancy regardless of what style of eating you follow. Prenatal supplements provide essential vitamins and minerals which are important for the development of a healthy baby.

Breakfast ideas

Morning breakfast smoothie with berries and banana

  1. Berry smoothie: 1 cup milk (soy/cow’s/unsweetened almond), 1 cup berries, 1 frozen banana, 1 tbsp. oat bran powder/raw oats, 2 baby spinach leaves, 1 tbsp. flaxseed blended with ice cubes
  2. Peanut smoothie: 1 cup milk (soy/cow’s/unsweetened almond), 1 frozen banana, 1 tbsp. chia seeds, 2 tbsp. unsweetened nut butter, 1 tbsp. oat bran powder, blended with ice cubes
  3. Omelette with coloured bell peppers and tomato
  4. Whole-grain toast with almond nut butter
  5. Whole-grain toast with baked beans

Lunch/dinner ideas

  1. Salad: Include baby spinach, strawberries, chickpeas, walnuts with olive oil/balsamic dressing
  2. Poke bowl: Brown rice, bok choy, edamame beans, cucumber, broccoli with soy dressing
  3. Tofu stir-fry with lots of assorted vegetables (including spinach)
  4. Bean and lentil soup with assorted vegetables and whole-grain bread
  5. Chickpea falafel wrap with hummus, whole-grain wrap and assorted vegetables

Bean and lentil soup for pregnant vegetarians

The information in this article is aimed at providing generalised information and guidelines. For a personalised meal plan and to assess whether your nutrient intake is sufficient during pregnancy, contact a registered dietitian for an assessment or chat to your doctor about being a healthy vegan/vegetarian during pregnancy.

Kelly is a registered dietitian and owner of Smart Eating Registered Dietitians Kelly is a registered dietitian in private practice. She gained valuable experience in the government and private sector before starting her own practice, ‘Smart Eating’, in 2015. She is currently a guest lecturer to the third-year dietetics students at the University of Pretoria and consults from practices in Houghton and Fourways and Morningside Mediclinic. Since becoming a mom in 2019, Kelly feels passionate about educating and informing other moms on nutrition-related topics and empowering them to provide a healthy balanced diet for the whole family. Kelly understands the stress and pressure that come with being a working mom and she supports her clients and assists them to achieve sustainable health goals. In her private capacity, Kelly enjoys baking, travelling and spending time with family and friends.