No meat? No problem. With good planning, vegetarians can easily meet nutritional requirements while pregnant and nursing. "It's the nutritive quality of a mother's foods, not the original source of each nutrient, that makes the difference in a baby's health," says Holly Roberts, M.D., a San Francisco-based ob/gyn and author of Your Vegetarian Pregnancy. Assess your diet to make sure you're meeting the recommended dietary allowances (ask your doctor for a list or find them in Roberts's book). The steps below can help you overcome some common challenges:
Mix it up. Vary foods daily so that trace minerals and nutrients you don't consume one day will be consumed later that week.
Take prenatal vitamins. Supplements help pick up the slack where your diet falls short, says Roberts. Ask your health care provider whether you also need to take a calcium supplement to help you meet the recommended 1,200 milligrams (mg) per day, particularly if you don't eat dairy.
Pump up your iron. A mother transfers a total of up to 1,000 mg of iron to her baby during pregnancy, which could cause her to develop iron-deficiency anemia, a condition characterized by fatigue. Although red meat is the most commonly known source, it's not the only way to get the mineral. Increase daily intake to 30 mg by eating foods like lentils, spinach, chickpeas, pumpkin, and almonds. Your doctor will perform a blood test to see if you need supplements beyond the iron you're getting in your prenatal vitamin.
B aggressive. B vitamins are vital to moms. One of the most critical in this group is folic acid, which helps prevent neural tube defects when it's taken in the earliest weeks of pregnancy (so start taking prenatal vitamins when you're trying to conceive). Most pregnant women need a total of 600 micrograms (mcg) of folate (400 mcg from a supplement and 200 mcg from foods) -- though some doctors may recommend more for vegetarians. Good sources of folate include beans, nuts, greens, and fortified breads and cereals. Vegans, in particular, are at risk for deficiencies of B12, a.k.a. cobalamin, because they don't eat meat, dairy, or eggs, the most common sources of the vitamin. The Centers for Disease Control recently warned that maternal deficiencies of B12 can cause developmental delays in infants. It recommends a supplement of 2.6 mcg during pregnancy and 2.8 mcg while nursing.
Pack in the protein. Protein is essential for building your baby's bones and tissues during pregnancy, as well as helping you produce breast milk postpartum. Eat larger amounts of such protein-rich foods as eggs, yogurt, and milk (if you include dairy in your diet), as well as beans, nuts, and tofu to get the recommended 60 grams per day during pregnancy and 65 grams while nursing. It's not a huge hurdle if you consider that one cup of firm tofu has 40 grams of protein.