Eating a Non-Vegetarian Diet During Pregnancy

If you’re a vegetarian or vegan, you may be wondering if you should switch to eating meat and other animal products during pregnancy. The good news is that it is possible to have a healthy pregnancy while eating a more restrictive diet. In this post, we’ll discuss the evidence for the healthfulness of vegetarian diets and some pitfalls to avoid, as well as what to do if you have been eating vegetarian or vegan and want to add in some animal products while you’re pregnant.

What we know about vegetarian and vegan diets during pregnancy

In a 2019 review paper published in the journal Nutrients, a group of researchers in Spain gathered together tons of research from other groups on the topic of vegan and vegetarian diets during pregnancy together and synthesized it. In their paper, called “The Effects of Vegetarian and Vegan Diet during Pregnancy on the Health of Mothers and Offspring,” the researchers detailed previous studies about pregnancy diets that focused on vitamins, minerals, protein sources, and maternal and fetal health, including incidence of pregnancy complications such as preeclampsia and low birthweight of the baby.

After evaluating the evidence, the authors concluded that vegan and vegetarian diets can be just as healthy as omnivorous diets during pregnancy, if attention is paid to micronutrients and appropriate supplements are taken as needed. Vegetarian and vegan pregnant people are particularly at risk for vitamin D deficiency, for instance. It is possible to supplement vitamin D, but it’s also possible to get too much of it. Your care provider will likely test your vitamin D levels when you get your initial pregnancy bloodwork and may recommend that you supplement with this vitamin. It’s always a good idea to check in with your doctor or midwife before you add in any vitamins or supplements during pregnancy.

You’ll be healthiest (and by extension your baby will be healthiest) if you eat a balanced diet during pregnancy.

But what if you want to eat meat?

Say you’ve been a vegetarian or a vegan for years, but since you’ve been pregnant, all you can think about is fried chicken. Pregnancy cravings can be a bother, but they can also give you information. If your body is telling you to eat meat when you haven’t for years, it’s possible that this craving is actually a signal from your body that your iron is low or that you need another nutrient, like choline, which is found in fish, egg yolks, and red meat.

If you don’t want to eat meat, maybe try a liquid iron supplement or check out the amount of choline in your prenatal vitamin. But if you do want to have some, go ahead. It’s a good idea to start slowly by taking one bite, chewing thoroughly, swallowing, and then waiting a bit to see how the food sits on your stomach. While it’s possible that you won’t have any problems, there is also the added complication of pregnancy thrown in. I regularly eat meat while I’m not pregnant, but when I am pregnant, I can’t handle all the chewing it entails without feeling nauseous.

When that first bite has been settling for a while, you can eat a little bit more. Just don’t overdo it. That pile of fried chicken may look delicious, but your body would prefer that you not eat it all in one sitting.

Nutrients and where you find them

You’ll be healthiest (and by extension your baby will be healthiest) if you eat a balanced diet during pregnancy. Do your best to put lots of colors of food on your plate: red peppers, butternut squash, watermelon, blueberries, broccoli and so on. The more you’re able to eat the rainbow, the less you’ll have to worry about supplementing nutrients that you’re not getting. And if you are craving a cheeseburger one day, go ahead and enjoy it.

The following is a list of common foods and a few of the nutrients they contain. This is by no means an exhaustive list of either food or the nutrients they contain, but it may give you a good idea about where to start with your diet:

  • Broccoli: carbs, calcium, potassium, zinc
  • Black beans: fiber, carbs, protein, folate, magnesium, iron
  • Green beans: vitamin A, vitamin C, vitamin K, folic acid, fiber.
  • Red meat: protein, vitamin B12, niacin, vitamin B6, iron, zinc and phosphorus.
  • Fish: protein, omega-3 fatty acids, vitamin D and B2
  • Bananas: fiber, carbs, potassium, vitamin B6, vitamin C
  • Apples: fiber, carbs, vitamin C, vitamin K, potassium
  • Lentils: fiber, carbs, protein, vitamin B6, niacin
  • Spinach: fiber, carbs, copper, vitamin B2, vitamin B6, vitamin E, calcium
  • Non-dairy milks: protein, fat, carbohydrates, water
  • Cow’s milk or cheese: protein, fat, calcium, carbohydrates, water
Abby Olena
Dr. Abby Olena has a PhD in Biological Sciences from Vanderbilt University. She lives with her husband and children in North Carolina, where she writes about science and parenting, produces a conversational podcast, and teaches prenatal yoga.

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