Vegetarianism During Pregnancy: Benefits, Negative Effects, & Tips

Is a vegetarian diet safe during pregnancy? Find out the advantages and risks and our top tips for a healthy pregnancy if you’re eating plant-based.

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by
Rebecca Washuta
— Signos
MS, CNS, LDN
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Reviewed by

Rebecca Washuta
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Updated by

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Science-based and reviewed

Published:
April 23, 2024
March 4, 2024
— Updated:

Table of Contents

“You are what you eat” has a lot of truth to it, but this saying is never more true or more important than while pregnant. When you’re carrying a little one, the food you eat nourishes you, helping support the countless changes your body is going through and providing all the necessary nutrients for your baby. A vegetarian diet can be a very healthy diet, but because they omit animal products like meat, fish, and poultry, they can also make it more challenging to fulfill the nutrient requirements for pregnancy.

Nutrient deficiencies during pregnancy can result in serious complications like excessive bleeding and anemia in moms, preterm birth, and developmental delays in children. If you’re following a vegetarian diet, it’s important to ensure you get the vitamins, minerals, and macronutrients you need for a healthy pregnancy.1 

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Benefits of Vegetarianism During Pregnancy

If you’re following a vegetarian eating pattern, you’re likely more conscious than most about the foods you’re consuming, and this is a great quality to have during pregnancy. Plant-based diets rich in fresh fruits, vegetables, whole grains, nuts, and legumes provide your body with abundant fiber and phytonutrients. Below are some potential benefits of following a vegetarian diet during pregnancy:2, 3, 4

  • Can reduce the risk of preeclampsia
  • Helps prevent gestational diabetes
  • Supports healthy fetal growth
  • May prevent excessive weight gain in mothers
  • Can reduce the risk of eczema and asthma in infants

What Are the Negative Effects of Vegetarianism During Pregnancy?

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While the research is clear that more vegetables can lead to better pregnancy outcomes, there are some risks associated with eating a vegetarian diet when you’re pregnant.5

Protein

Your body is rapidly changing during pregnancy. Not only are you growing a baby, but you're also growing entirely new tissues and organs like the placenta. To perform these biological feats, your body requires significantly more protein. Your protein needs change throughout pregnancy, but women should eat at least 71g of protein per day by the second trimester.6 This can be challenging to manage when you’re avoiding animal protein, as plant protein is typically not digested and absorbed as well.2  

One study found that very low protein intake by the mother during pregnancy was associated with developmental delays in their children.7 Those who consider themselves lacto-ovo vegetarians and consume eggs and dairy products will find it easier to meet their protein requirements than those following a strict vegan diet. 

Omega 3

Omega-3 fatty acids are particularly important during pregnancy because they provide the building blocks for the baby’s brain and eyes. While one type of omega-3 called alpha-linolenic acid (ALA) is found in flaxseeds, hemp seeds, chia seeds, and walnuts, the most biologically active omega 3’s docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) and eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) are primarily found in seafood. Studies suggest that inadequate omega 3’s during pregnancy can impact the baby’s brain development and lead to cognitive issues like lower than normal IQ scores in children.8

Iron

During pregnancy, a woman’s blood volume increases by more than 50% to support the growing baby.9 All these new red blood cells need iron, so the recommended daily iron requirement more than doubles. Iron is abundant in beef and seafood but is less bioavailable when found in plant foods like spinach and beans. Pregnant women who don’t consume enough iron can end up with iron deficiency anemia. Anemia during pregnancy can cause fatigue, breathing difficulties, and even preterm labor in mothers.10

Vitamin B12

It’s well known that the need for folic acid (folate or B9) increases during pregnancy. What’s discussed less often is that folate and B12 work together in the body, so B12 is just as important. Vitamin B12 isn’t found in plant food, so it must be obtained through animal sources or supplements. Low levels of B12 during pregnancy are associated with an increased risk of neural tube defects and other neurodevelopmental issues.11

<p class="pro-tip"><strong>Learn More: </strong><a href="types-of-vegetarian-diets">7 Types of Vegetarian Diets Explained</a>.</p>

15 Nutritional Requirements for a Plant-Based Diet During Pregnancy

When you’re eating for two and following a plant-based diet, it’s important to make sure you’re getting all the nutrients you need. Below are macro and micronutrient requirements to be aware of during pregnancy. Work with your doctor or dietitian to ensure you meet these recommended daily values. 

Vitamins

  • B6: 1.9 mg/day
  • Fortified cereals, dark leafy greens, bananas
  • B9(Folate): 600 mcg/day
  • Dark leafy greens, beans, orange juice 
  • B12: 2.6 mcg/day
  • Nutritional yeast, fortified cereals, yogurt
  • Vitamin C: 85 mg/day
  • Orange juice, citrus fruits, peppers
  • Vitamin A: 770 mcg/day
  • Eggs, carrots, spinach
  • Vitamin D: 600 IU/day
  • Mushrooms, eggs, fortified dairy foods

Minerals

  • Magnesium: 360 mg/day
  • Spinach, almonds, cashews
  • Calcium: 1000mg/day
  • Dairy foods, white beans, tofu
  • Iron: 27 mg/day
  • Beans, dried fruit, kale
  • Zinc: 11 mg/day
  • Fortified cereals, pumpkin seeds, cheddar cheese
  • Iodine: 220 mg/day
  • Milk, yogurt, cheese

Macronutrients

  • Protein: 71 g/day
  • Legumes, dairy foods, eggs
  • Carbohydrate: 175g/day
  • Whole grain cereals, pasta, starchy vegetables
  • Fiber: 28g/day
  • Vegetables, nuts, legumes
  • Omega-3 Fats: 13g/day 
  • Algae 

9 Tips for Vegetarian Diets During Pregnancy

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You can safely follow a vegetarian diet during pregnancy as long as you’re paying attention to getting all the essential nutrients for you and your baby. Follow the tips below to optimize your plant-based diet and ensure a healthy pregnancy.

  1. Avoid Unpasteurized Food: Unpasteurized milk, cheese, and juice may contain bacteria that can make expectant moms sick and potentially harm unborn babies. Avoid soft cheeses like brie, feta, and camembert. 
  2. Avoid Undercooked Food: Undercooked eggs may be contaminated with Salmonella. Eggs should be cooked to 160°F (71°C) or until the white and yolk are firm. 
  3. Choose Nutrient-Dense Foods: Fresh, colorful foods like vegetables and fruit are packed with antioxidants and other phytonutrients that will help keep you and your little one healthy.
  4. Pay Attention to Protein: Legumes like soy, chickpeas, lentils, and black beans, as well as nuts and nut butters, are good sources of protein. Incorporating eggs and dairy foods will also help you reach your protein goals. 
  5. Try Smoothies: Smoothies are a great way to get extra protein and veggies in. Start with a base of your favorite milk, add berries and a serving of protein powder, and try throwing in some mild-tasting veggies like frozen spinach, cauliflower rice, or even avocado. 
  6. Be Aware of Changes in the Second and Third Trimesters: Your protein needs jump from 46g to 71g per day in your second and third trimesters, and your calorie needs increase in your second trimester and then again in your third trimester.
  7. Take a Prenatal Vitamin: Talk to your healthcare provider or dietitian about the best prenatal vitamin for you.
  8. Consider Omega-3 Supplements: If you’re not eating fish, it can be challenging to meet the omega-3 requirements for you and your baby. A fish oil or algae supplement may be necessary.
  9. Talk to Your Doctor: Tell your doctor about your diet and ask them to check for common nutrient deficiencies. 

Is Vegetarianism During Pregnancy Good for You?

How you feed yourself and your baby during pregnancy is completely up to you. While plant based foods like vegetables have been shown to offer some benefits, it’s important also to understand the risks. A vegetarian diet can be restrictive, making nourishing yourself and your growing baby more difficult. The lacto-ovo vegetarian diet, which allows for dairy and eggs is more inclusive and will allow you to more easily obtain the key nutrients, compared to a strict vegan diet.  If you decide to follow a vegetarian diet during pregnancy, be mindful of maintaining a balanced diet, meeting your protein and omega-3 needs, and getting adequate B12 and iron. 

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<p class="pro-tip"><strong>Also Read: </strong><a href="loss-of-appetite-during-pregnancy">Appetite Loss During Pregnancy: Why It Occurs + How to Face It</a>.</p>

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About the author

Rebecca Washuta is a licensed dietitian with degrees in neuroscience and nutrition and helped individuals develop long-term health habits and achieve various wellness goals.

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