nutrition

Medically Reviewed

Prenatal Vitamins for Vegetarians: What You Should Know

A pregnant person in a red dress

Prenatal vitamins contain all the essential vitamins and minerals needed before and during pregnancy to ensure the healthy growth and development of the baby.

An adequate nutrition plan during pregnancy is crucial not only for the health of the mother, but also for the growth and development of the baby. Plant-based diets have increased worldwide, and while they can be safe during pregnancy and lactation, they can naturally have a lower content of essential nutrients. While a healthy diet is always encouraged, a prenatal supplement can help fill the nutritional gaps created by the body’s increased nutrient needs during pregnancy.

Why you should take prenatal vitamins

The early stages of pregnancy are the most critical in the development of the fetus. Ironically, women are sometimes unaware they are pregnant at this time. A prenatal supplement helps ensure that both the expecting mother and unborn baby are receiving all the nutrients they need during this crucial stage of development. Along with lowering the risk of the baby developing nutrient deficiency related health issues, prenatal vitamins have also been reported to ease symptoms of morning sickness, such as nausea and vomiting.

What nutrients to look for in a prenatal vitamin

A prenatal supplement should specifically contain folic acid (folate) and iron.

Folic acid is particularly important before and during the early stages of pregnancy for its role in the development of the neural tube and spine. It is recommended that women of childbearing age consume 400 mg DFE/day and then increase to 600 mg DFE/day during pregnancy. It can be difficult to meet those needs through diet alone, which is why a prenatal supplement containing folic acid in its active form, methylfolate, is beneficial for promoting a healthy pregnancy.

Iron helps make blood and transport oxygen throughout the body. During pregnancy, your body needs to make extra blood to support and deliver oxygen to the baby. Females who eat a plant-based diet typically have lower iron stores compared to those who consume animal food sources. Low iron stores or anemia during pregnancy can lead to premature births. Pregnant women need 27 mg/day of an easily absorbed form of iron such as ferrous bis-glycinate chelate.

Other vitamins that are important during pregnancy include:

Zinc: Zinc is essential for many biological processes, including immune function, DNA synthesis, wound healing, cell signaling, and healthy development during pregnancy. Vegetarians typically have lower absorption of zinc, as vegetarian diets are rich in phytates, which can bind zinc and inhibit absorption. According to this study, low levels of zinc during pregnancy can negatively affect the growth rate of infants in the womb.. A zinc supplement in chelated form is best for optimal absorption.

Vitamin B12: Vitamin B12 is a water-soluble vitamin naturally found in animal-based foods such as meat, poultry, fish, eggs, and dairy products. It is necessary for developing the central nervous system and forming red blood cells. There is a high prevalence of vitamin B12 depletion or deficiency among vegetarians due to sources of B12 being limited in plant-based food sources. During pregnancy, low levels of B12 during the first trimester can increase the risk for neural tube issues. Supplementing with vitamin B12 in its active form, methylcobalamin, is beneficial for optimal absorption and preventing deficiency, especially in those with genetic variants.

Iodine: Iodine is essential for thyroid function and overall growth of the baby's body and the development of its central nervous system. During pregnancy, the need for iodine significantly increases for a multitude of reasons as there is more thyroid hormone production, iodine is transferred to the fetus, and iodine is excreted more through urine. Therefore, it is recommended to supplement with 150-250 mcg/L of iodine daily.

Vitamin D: Vitamin D, or cholecalciferol, is a fat-soluble vitamin important for bone growth and immune function. Low vitamin D levels are very common among plant-based diets. Deficiency can lead to growth delays and bone issues. D3, also known as cholecalciferol, is the more easily absorbed form of the vitamin and when taken with vitamin K2 (menaquinone), it works synergistically to ensure calcium is being transported to the bone.

Choline: Choline is an essential nutrient that plays an important role in brain and nervous system functions. Choline is critical for the neural development of the fetus and for reducing the risk of birth defects. Humans can produce choline in the liver; however, the amount produced in the liver is not a sufficient amount to meet our needs. Therefore, more choline must be obtained from the diet. According to a report from 2007, 90% of pregnant women do not meet the recommended intake of 450 mg/day.

Calcium: Calcium is the most abundant mineral in the body, and it’s responsible for making up the structure of bones and teeth.. Supplementing calcium is important throughout pregnancy, as it helps the baby grow strong and healthy bones. During pregnancy and lactation, adequate calcium intake is considered to be 1000 mg/day. Vegetarians and vegans should consume 1200-1500 mg/day, which is 20% more than what omnivores should consume.

Other nutrients vegetarians should consider during pregnancy

Vegetarians should also consider an omega-3 supplement during pregnancy. Omega-3 is a type of fat naturally found in many types of fish as well as plant-based foods, such as nuts and seeds. Care/of’s Veggie Omega contains essential fatty acids called DHA and EPA, which are important for brain and eye development during pregnancy.

Look for third-party testing certificates

Third-party testing is when an organization unaffiliated with the supplement company evaluates the dietary supplement and tests for contaminants such as mold, bacteria, and heavy metals. When shopping for supplements, it is important to look for a third-party testing certificate, as this offers unbiased confirmation that all ingredients listed on the label are present in the supplement in appropriate doses.

When to start taking prenatal vitamins

The early weeks of pregnancy are important for much of the baby's brain and spine development. While it is generally advisable to start a prenatal supplement at least one month before trying to conceive, it is a good idea for women to take adequate folic acid or folate regularly throughout their reproductive years, which can be found alone or in a multivitamin.

Final Takeaways

The science behind prenatal vitamins is based on research on how to best support expecting mothers and developing babies. The most up-to-date research is used to include the most effective forms of ingredients in the prenatal supplement, which are essential neural tube, brain, and spinal development. A prenatal vitamin should not be used in place of a nutrient-rich diet, but rather to fill in the gaps to maintain optimal levels of essential vitamins and minerals to best support your growing baby. It is important to check with your healthcare provider as they may recommend higher doses of specific nutrients depending on individual circumstances.

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