Is it okay to be a vegetarian if you're pregnant?

Dear Sue:

I am three months pregnant and have been told by lots of people to have a protein-rich diet. Most books on food and diet seem to suggest mainly non- vegetarian diets. I am living in India and am a vegetarian and wonder if you could suggest a protein-rich diet for vegetarians. Are there supplements I should also take? Thanks for any suggestions.
Hemali

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Sue Gilbert

Sue Gilbert works as a consulting nutritionist. For many years she worked with Earth's Best Organic Baby Food, integrating nutrition and... Read more

Dear Hemali:
Being a vegetarian will in no way impede your ability to get adequate protein for your growing baby, but you are right to be concerned. Too little protein can reduce placental growth and function, limit the baby's growth, jeopardize normal brain development and risk survival. Vegetarians just need to be extra careful to get the 74 grams a pregnant woman needs each day.

Assuming that you do eat animal products such as yogurt, cheese and eggs, you will find it easy to meet your daily protein needs.

Foods particularly high in good-quality vegetarian protein are:

  • legumes (such as chickpeas, tofu and lentils)
  • eggs
  • dairy products
  • nuts

 Tips for Getting the Protein You Need: 

  • Eat plenty of yogurt. Because the bacteria in the yogurt has digested most of the lactose in the milk, even if you happen to be lactose-intolerant you should be able to tolerate this dairy product. It is packed with protein and calcium.
  • Eat a mixture of grains and legumes to ensure that you are getting complete, high-quality protein. You don't need to eat them at the same meal, although typical Indian cuisine often includes both.
  • Peanut butter: Spread some on a banana or apple. Two tablespoons of dry-roasted peanuts contains four grams of protein.
  • Eggs: Slice a hard-boiled egg on your dinner salad. A breakfast muffin made with whole-wheat flour and egg has four grams of protein. Bake using eggs. If you eat pancakes, for example, add an extra egg. Make French toast for breakfast instead of having a piece of plain toast.
  • Cheese: Add cheese and chickpeas to salads and top with a yogurt-based dressing. Sprinkle shredded cheese on top of pasta dishes, soups, casseroles and baked potatoes. Make cheese soup.
  • Tofu: This is a great source of protein. Have whole-wheat bread or nan with tofu salad. Mash up tofu and add to tomato sauce for pasta, or use chunks of it in a curry-based sauce and serve on top of rice. Substitute tofu for some of the ricotta cheese in pasta dishes.
  • Soy flour: When baking, substitute 1/4 of each cup of regular flour with soy flour.
  • Soy milk: Make high-protein drinks with vanilla-flavored soy milk and a banana or other favorite fruits. Add an ice cube or two, and whirl in the blender until thick and frothy.

Four servings of dairy plus three servings of a protein food each day will be plenty to meet your protein needs. It's what you eat overall that counts, not each separate meal, so small amounts of protein eaten throughout the day can add up to the three recommended servings.

If you find that despite your best attempts you cannot seem to get enough protein from food, then try drinking a liquid supplement such as Ensure, if it is available to you, or other such products aimed at average adults.

Breakfast drinks may also be a good alternative, but avoid the supplements targeted for the sports crowd, because you risk getting too much protein -- and getting it in an unbalanced fashion.

Thanks for your question, and best of luck to you.

Sincerely,
Sue Gilbert

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