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It's perfectly possible to be a vegetarian and have a healthy pregnancy, says Elizabeth Somer, MA, a registered dietitian and author of the book "Nutrition for a Healthy Pregnancy." The key is to choose a variety of foods that will help ensure that you get the calories and nutrients you need to grow a healthy baby.
Though vegetarians may gain a little less weight during pregnancy than omnivores, in general you should shoot for the same 25 to 35 pounds of weight gain recommended for expecting moms. If you're overweight when you get pregnant, you'll want to gain a little less; if you're underweight, your doctor may recommend that you gain a little more. However much you gain, you'll want to be sure you're focusing on foods that will ensure a healthy pregnancy.
"Getting enough protein tends to be one of the biggest concerns for pregnant vegetarians," says Somers. Pregnant women need 71 grams of protein each day to help promote healthy fetal growth, especially during your second and third trimester, but Somers says it's easier than many women think to meet that need. Cheese, lentils, milk, peanut butter, eggs, whole grains, yogurt and tofu can all help you fill your daily recommended protein intake.
Expecting moms should aim to get 800 micrograms of folic acid or folate every day, ideally beginning when you first start trying to conceive. Folate plays an important role in early fetal development, helping to prevent neural tube defects and reduce the risk of low birth weight. Vegetarians can get folic acid from spinach, beans, asparagus and peanuts, but the simplest source is fortified cereals, which can include 100 to 700 micrograms of folic acid per serving, according to the Mayo Clinic.
Omega-3 Fatty Acids
Omega-3 fatty acids may be the most challenging nutrient for vegetarians to get during pregnancy, says Somers, but because of the important role these fatty acids play in your baby's brain and visual development, you'll want to make the effort. Fish is the best source of omega-3 fatty acids, but you can also find these essential nutrients in walnuts, flaxseed, leafy green vegetables, cruciferous vegetables such as broccoli and cauliflower, kidney beans and pinto beans. If you're worried that your diet doesn't include enough omega-3s, talk to your health-care provider about taking supplements during your pregnancy.
Your circulatory system is doing double duty during pregnancy, which means your need for iron — a nutrient that's essential for making the protein that carries oxygen to your cells — also doubles. Vegetarians can't get iron from the usually recommended sources — red meat, poultry and fish — so increase your intake of beans, spinach, sweet potatoes, peanuts, raisins and prunes. When you're shopping, opt for breakfast cereals fortified with iron to help you get the 27 milligrams of iron your body needs each day.
When you're pregnant, you'll need to get 1,200 milligrams of calcium each day to help your baby develop healthy teeth and bones. If you don't eat dairy products — the most obvious source of calcium — you can meet your calcium needs by eating leafy green vegetables, dried beans, dried peas or tofu. Fortified juices are also a good source of calcium.
Keep in mind that eating calcium is only half of the process: Your body needs vitamin D to process the calcium you eat into a usable form. There are several types of foods, including eggs, dairy products and canned fish, that come in vitamin D-fortified forms, and asparagus is another source, but you can get similar results from sitting in direct sunlight for 10 to 15 minutes three times a week.