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Diet for a healthy vegetarian pregnancy

How to get the pregnancy nutrients you need from a vegetarian diet

"Many pregnant women who eat a vegetarian diet worry that they're not getting enough protein," says Elizabeth Somer, a dietitian and the author of Nutrition for a Healthy Pregnancy: The Complete Guide to Eating Before, During, and After Your Pregnancy.

Somer says it's actually pretty easy to fulfill your protein needs just by drinking cow's milk or soy milk. Other good vegetarian sources include whole grains, beans, cheese, tofu, and yogurt.

Of bigger concern, she says, are omega-3 fatty acids (which play an important role in your baby's brain and vision development), zinc, iron, vitamin B12, vitamin D, folate, and calcium. Most of these essentials are easy enough to find in vegetarian foods (and even vegan foods, which contain no animal products at all, not even eggs or milk). Omega-3s may be an exception, though.

If you don't eat fish, you'll have to get your omega-3s from foods like flax seed, walnuts, dark leafy green vegetables, kidney and pinto beans, squash, canola oil, broccoli, cauliflower, and papaya. In addition, some brands of eggs, milk, soy beverages, orange juice, yogurt, bread, cereal, and margarine are fortified with algae-based (vegetarian) omega-3 DHA – check the labels.

DHA is the most important of the omega-3s for brain and vision development. If you think you might not be getting enough, ask your healthcare provider about taking omega-3 supplements during pregnancy.

Learn more about omega-3s and other dietary fats during pregnancy.

While it's best to meet as many of your nutritional needs as possible through the food you eat, be sure to talk with your healthcare provider or a dietitian if you're concerned about coming up short. Your prenatal vitamin will help, but depending on your eating habits, you may need to take additional supplements.

Diet recommendations

Beyond your omega-3s, here's what Somer recommends you eat every day:

1. Four servings of cooked dried beans and peas, because they're full of zinc, iron, and protein. A few nuts and seeds can also be added.

2. Four servings of calcium-rich foods, including nonfat or low-fat cow's milk or calcium- and vitamin D-fortified soy milk. "Look for foods that have 300 mg of calcium per serving, which equals about 30 percent of the Daily Value as listed on the label," says Somer. Cheese and cottage cheese are good for calcium, but they don't supply the vitamin D your body needs to absorb it and move it into the bones.

3. Eight to ten servings of fruits and vegetables, because they're full of antioxidants. "I recommend five to seven servings of vegetables and three to five of fruit," says Somer.

4. Six to 11 servings of whole grains, including foods such as brown rice, oatmeal, and whole wheat bread.

5. One or more servings of a food that provides vitamin B12, such as milk, fortified soy milk, egg yolk, or fermented soy like miso or tempeh.

Note that these amounts differ somewhat from the amounts recommended recommended by the USDA for pregnant women. They've been developed by Somer specifically to fulfill the needs of pregnant vegetarians.

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