Counseling Sheet

Vegetarian Diets For Pregnant and Nursing Women

Agatha M. Thrash, M.D.
Preventive Medicine

Since all human beings are composed of what they eat, the health problems that show up in children, and later in adult life, are largely due to the kind and quality of the food eaten, especially during the growing period. Food must contain the greatest number of nutritive factors, known and unknown, in as near to their natural state as possible. Food that is whole, unrefined, that has gone through the least processing is the best for growth and development.


During pregnancy the most favorable diet for a woman is a totally vegetarian diet. With such a diet she is capable of furnishing the unborn baby with a wide array of nutrients, minerals, vitamins, trace elements, as well as the major elements of protein, carbohydrates, and fats.


GRAINS and HIGH STARCH FOODS: 8 or more servings daily

1 slice bread 1/2 cup rice, cooked cereal, or whole grain pasta
3/4 - 1 cup of ready-to-eat cereal
1 medium to large potato
1 small to medium sweet potato

PROTEIN FOODS: 2-3 servings of legumes, nuts, or seeds
1/2 cup cooked beans
1/2 cup tofu
2 tablespoons nuts, seeds or 1 tablespoon nut or seed butter

VEGETABLES: 5 or more servings
1 cup raw vegetable
1/2 cup cooked vegetable
3/4 cup vegetable juice

FRUITS: 5 or more servings
1 medium fresh fruit
1/2 cup canned fruit
3/4 cup fruit juice


The pregnant woman should be certain that she takes a small handful of nuts or seeds every day, gets beans or peanuts at least three times a week, and greens 3 times a week. If for some reason one of these 3 major vegetarian foods cannot be taken, the other one should be taken if at all possible; so that if beans or nuts cannot be taken, 5 or 6 servings of good quality greens should be taken each week. It is wise to rotate the nuts so that no nut will cause an allergic reaction. Seeds may also be substituted for nuts such as flax seed, sunflower seed, sesame seed, and pumpkin seed. No single nut or seed should make up the entire diet. Peanuts are actually a legume, but because of the high fat content, could be used in place of nuts occasionally.


Sufficient high calorie foods such as bean spreads, soy products, nuts, nut butters, dried fruits, potatoes, sweet potatoes, pastas, and rice should be taken during pregnancy to ensure approximately a 15 to 25 pound total weight gain during the pregnancy. We have observed that pregnant vegetarian women do not require the enormous weight gain that non-vegetarian women require in order to ensure a healthy baby, as the high nutrient content is quite adequate to furnish all the nutrients the developing embryo requires.

Beans, greens, and whole grains will supply adequate calcium. Soybeans represent the most desirable bean and can be used in many ways. The most healthful way is to get the dried soybeans, soak them, and use them in a variety of recipes. Beware of soy milk. Always read labels. If some form of sugar and fat are among the first 3 ingredients listed, you should class that soy milk as a condiment, not a food.


The same meal planning suggestions given for the diet during pregnancy can be used during lactation. Since during lactation a woman will need from 500 to 1,000 additional calories in her diet each day because the baby will be taking that much through the milk, the mother may have more servings of any of the food groups desired. If her weight gain was good during pregnancy, she can still maintain proper milk volume even with a weight loss of 1 to 4 pounds per month.

The mother should get into the sun every sunshiny day and expose at least a 6-inch patch of skin to the sun if she is light-skinned, or twice that amount if she is dark-skinned, in order to get sufficient vitamin D. Good sources of vitamin B-12 are fortified soy milk, or fortified cereal. Both the mother and the baby should be observed for any failure to have appropriate energy or growth which could represent a B-12 deficiency.

During both lactation and pregnancy it is unwise to take any kind of refined foods such as white flour products, white pastas, white bread, or white rice. Sugar, syrup, honey, and molasses should also be omitted as these foods displace nutrients from whole food products and can imbalance the nutrient economy of the unborn baby. Satisfy a sweet tooth with the sweet fruits and vegetables.


Both during pregnancy and lactation a woman needs extra fluids. She will be storing fluids during the pregnancy and losing quite a lot of fluid in the milk during the lactation period. Around 9 or 10 glasses of water should be taken each day; a substitute for some of these glasses can be in the form of vegetable broths or mild beverage teas such as mint.


Generally when a pregnant woman goes into labor she automatically loses her appetite. It has been shown that a low normal maternal level of blood sugar helps an infant to breathe more properly and to establish respirations more promptly after delivery. It may assist in normalizing the baby's own biochemistries. During the 12-24 hours of labor and delivery the mother does not eat anything, and it is a well-known fact that during the next 24-48 hours the baby does not show much interest in feeding. This period of fasting is a physiologically protective mechanism; we should not artificially interfere with it. It is not best to give I V fluids, as they cause a high level of blood sugar in the mother, not conducive to the best infant health. Also, the giving of sugar water in the nursery is a load of sugar that the infant's immature pancreas cannot easily handle. It is better to give the baby only colostrum, the first secretions produced by the mother's breast after the birth of the baby, a fluid peculiarly adapted to the special needs of the infant. To take this colostrum boosts his immune system and gives a laxative effect, assisting in passing the meconium, the sticky first stool of the baby. Further, the mineral, protein, and fat content of colostrum is ideally suited for the newborn baby.

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