Meeting your needs and baby's on a vegetarian diet

AllisonMS, RDN, CDN

If you do not eat meat and seafood (and if you eat very little dairy products and eggs), it can take some planning to ensure you are getting enough important daily nutrients. In particular, vegetarians should focus on including plenty of protein, omega-3 fatty acids, iron, zinc, iodine, calcium, vitamin D and vitamin B12 in their diet. Go to the What to Do section below for specific foods and recommended amounts to meet your and your baby’s needs.

Without the proper intake of these essential nutrients, deficiencies can lead to low energy, weakness, and a number of different health problems for you and for your baby. If pregnant, nutrient deficiencies may negatively impact your baby’s growth and development.

If you’re a vegetarian breastfeeding mama (and especially if you’re exclusively breastfeeding) keep in mind that your baby receives his nutrients from your body (and in fact, baby gets first dibs on your nutrient stores). So now is the time to assess your diet to make sure you’re not missing out on the nutrients both you and your baby need.

What to Do

When following a vegetarian diet, variety is key

If you and your baby follow some type of vegetarian diet, or if you only include meat and seafood sparingly, it’s important to include a wide variety of nutritious plant-based foods that will provide you and your baby with the calories and nutrients you need to stay healthy. Aim for all different color vegetables and fruit, a variety of whole grains, nuts, seeds, beans, and legumes (as well as dairy, eggs, and fish – should you choose to include these foods).

Choose plant-based foods rich in protein, omega 3 fatty acids, iron, zinc, iodine, calcium, vitamin D and vitamin B12

Protein is important for the structure, function and regulation of tissues and organs. Deficiency can lead to weight loss, brittle hair and nails, headaches and difficulty sleeping. While it’s relatively easy to get plenty of protein with a vegetarian diet, many plant-based proteins are ‘incomplete’, meaning that unlike animal proteins, they are low in one or more of the 9 essential amino acids (protein components that you have to obtain through your diet because your body cannot make them). But, don’t worry! Plant proteins can complement each other, by simply eating a range of different protein sources, you’ll get all the essential amino acids.

Beans and legumes, nuts and seeds are excellent vegetarian protein sources, as are tofu, tempeh, and seitan. If you’re a lacto-ovo vegetarian, you likely already know that unsweetened low-fat yogurts and cottage cheese; as well as eggs are all good sources of protein. Some grains are also a source of protein, like quinoa, millet, amaranth, Kamut, spelt, whole wheat, buckwheat, and oatmeal. Your baby can enjoy beans as finger food or nut and seed butters (but not whole nuts and seeds as these can be choking hazards for babies).

Omega-3 fatty acids are important for supporting heart and brain health. There are three types of omega-3 fatty acids: ALA (found in plant foods) DHA and EPA (found primarily in seafood and algae).

Foods high in ALA include walnuts, ground flaxseeds or flaxseed oil, canola oil and soy. Oily fish is an excellent source of DHA if you eat seafood, just be mindful to choose fish low in mercury such as wild salmon, canned light tuna, trout , , and sardines. If you don’t include seafood in your diet, algae is a great option for getting your DHA (think roasted seaweed and nori).

Iron is essential for your red blood cells’ ability to carry oxygen to your tissues. Deficiency can make you anemic, fatigued and weak.

You can get plenty of iron by eating beans, such as lentils, kidney beans and black beans; as well as dark leafy greens such as spinach and kale. Other sources include quinoa, peas, almonds and some dried fruit (apricots, prunes, raisins). You can also get iron from fortified grains, such as breads, pasta and breakfast cereals (check the nutrition facts panel to see how much iron it contains). When choosing fortified foods, look for whole grain choices, and when choosing cereals, look for varieties with less than 4 grams of sugar per serving unless the cereal contains dried or freeze dried fruit.

The body absorbs iron best from plant sources eaten along with sources of vitamin C, for example beans with tomatoes or spinach with lemon juice.

Zinc is important for supporting your immune system as well as cell division and growth. Deficiency can lead to growth and development problems as well as loss of appetite.

White beans, kidney beans and chickpeas are all good sources of zinc. You can also get zinc from nuts, whole grains, and fortified breakfast cereals. Lacto-vegetarians can get zinc from dairy products, such as low fat yogurt or milk.

Iodine is important for normal cell metabolism and for your thyroid to function properly. Deficiency can prevent your body from making adequate thyroid hormone and may lead to development of a goiter or enlarged thyroid.

Pescatarians and lacto-vegetarians can get iodine from seafood, dairy, and iodized salt. You can also get iodine from sea vegetables, such as nori and wakame.

Calcium is critical for healthy bones and teeth as well as muscle contraction and nerve function. Deficiency can increase your risk of developing osteoporosis.

Most of us know that dairy is a good source of calcium, but if you and your baby don’t include dairy in your diet, you can still meet your calcium needs. Dark leafy greens, tofu, baked beans, almonds, sardines, sesame seeds, tahini and figs are all good sources of calcium. You can also choose calcium-fortified soymilk and almond milk (which have a calcium content similar to dairy milk), fortified orange juice, and some breakfast cereals.

Vitamin D helps your body absorb calcium and provides many hormone-like functions in the body. Deficiency can increase your risk of many chronic diseases like osteoporosis and also infectious diseases like the flu). It can also lead to rickets (soft bones) in children.

The best food sources of vitamin D are fish and fortified dairy products, but most of our vitamin D comes from a hormone our bodies make from exposure to sunlight. In addition to needing at least 15 minutes of sun exposure a day (on skin not protected by sunscreen), the Institute of Medicine suggests we might all benefit from vitamin D supplementation. Talk with your healthcare provider about having your blood level checked to determine what degree of supplementation you may need.

The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that breastfed infants, and combination fed (breast milk and formula) infants should be supplemented with 400 IU of vitamin D per day beginning soon after birth.

Formula fed infants and older children (who drink less than 32 ounces of vitamin D fortified infant formula or milk per day) should be supplemented with 400 IU of vitamin D per day.

Breastfed and bottle fed infants should be given a vitamin D supplement in liquid form

Adolescents who do not get 600 IU in their diet should be supplemented with 600 IU per day

Vitamin B12 is important for the central nervous system, metabolism, and the formation of red blood cells. Deficiency can cause anemia and weakness.

Eggs, dairy and fish are good sources of vitamin B12. If you exclude these foods, you can get some of this vitamin from fermented soybeans, nori and shiitake mushrooms. But ultimately, you will likely have to rely on fortified food sources or supplementation.

If you want more information on the nutrients discussed, check out the list of related topics to link to nutrient-specific articles. If you have any nutrient specific concerns or are having trouble coming up with vegetarian meal ideas, talk with a Happy Family Milk Mentor for guidance.

Your baby can enjoy most of the same foods that you choose for yourself. Just remember to follow appropriate food safety preparation guidelines and present the food in the right size, texture and consistency based on their developmental readiness (see Introducing Solids: Signs of Readiness for tips).

Talk with your health care provider and your child’s pediatrician about the need for additional supplementation

Ask especially about your needs for omega-3 fatty acids, vitamin D, vitamin B12, iodine and calcium.

Balance your meals

Try to balance your meals and your baby’s meals by choosing lean proteins (such as beans and tofu) with whole grains, and fresh vegetables and fruits.

As with any diet, be mindful of portion sizes

Vegetarian diets are not necessarily lower in calories than non-vegetarian diets. It’s easy to overdo it with highly processed foods (especially starchy ones) as well as whole foods such as nuts, nut butters and cheeses (if you eat dairy). Remember that these whole foods are good sources of fat and protein, but they are also very dense (and therefore high in calories), so a little a day is likely all you’ll need.