Super Foods for Pregnancy and Lactation

By Cathe Olson

What you eat makes a big difference in how you feel physically and emotionally while pregnant or breastfeeding. Your diet also directly affects the health of your baby. Vegetarian women must take extra care to ensure they are getting the nutrients they need in order for mother and baby to thrive.

I experienced a major difference between my two pregnancies. During my first pregnancy, I did not pay attention to protein and fat. Consequently, my blood sugar levels were unstable, causing me to be forgetful, lightheaded, moody, and tired. I was consistently underweight in my pregnancy and I went into labor six weeks early. Fortunately, my baby and I were fine.

During my second pregnancy, I regularly ate concentrated protein foods like tempeh, tofu, beans, legumes, nuts, seeds, and yogurt. I also ate dark green leafy vegetables, whole grains, and cultured foods. I thrived during this pregnancy. My weight gain was always right at the recommended levels. I had energy; I was clearheaded; and I felt good. I kept a food log that my midwife reviewed at every prenatal appointment. She was so impressed that she passed the log on to her other vegetarian clients to give them ideas for nourishing meals.

Following are foods that are especially beneficial during pregnancy and lactation.

Beans and Legumes

Beans and legumes are good sources of protein, fiber, calcium, iron, thiamine, and niacin. They are a crucial part of a vegetarian diet. Soybeans provide more protein than any other bean or legume. Soybeans are rich in many nutrients, including calcium and iron. Fermented soy products like tempeh or miso are especially beneficial because they contain healthy bacteria and enzymes that aid digestion, and the phytic acid that can inhibit mineral absorption is neutralized by the culturing process.

Blackstrap Molasses

Blackstrap molasses contains high amounts of calcium and iron, plus magnesium, potassium, copper, and chromium. Buy organic, unsulphured molasses and use it to sweeten porridge, smoothies, and baked goods.

Cultured and Fermented Foods

Cultured foods like yogurt, kefir, miso, naturally fermented vegetable pickles and sauerkraut contain enzymes and bacteria that help digest food and eliminate wastes. They also help build up friendly bacteria in the intestines, which is especially important after taking antibiotics. (Most hospitals give women antibiotics during labor.) Eat plenty of fermented foods during pregnancy when your digestive system may be sluggish. They help prevent constipation and other digestive problems, and are useful in preventing and treating yeast infections.

Dark Green Leafy Vegetables and Cabbage Family Vegetables

Dark green leafy vegetables (kale, collard greens, watercress, etc.) are important while pregnant or lactating because they supply so many vitamins and minerals, including vitamins A and C, calcium, and iron. Dark leafy green vegetables also are rich in phytochemicals like beta carotein and lutein which protect against many forms of cancer. Certain greens like spinach and Swiss chard are high in oxalic acid, which inhibit the absorption of much of the calcium and iron. Cooking helps to neutralize some of the oxalic acid.

Vegetables from the cabbage family (broccoli, brussels sprouts, cabbage, etc.) are exceptional sources of vitamin A, vitamin C, and calcium. They are also rich in phytochemicals that have anticancer properties.

Dark green leafy vegetables and cabbage family vegetables provide important nutrients that help to promote a plentiful milk supply for your baby. Buy fresh, organic vegetables whenever possible and eat at least one serving every day.


Eggs contain highly useable protein as well as almost every essential vitamin (except vitamin C) and mineral needed by humans. Eggs are very nutrient dense, which means they supply a great deal of nutrition for a small number of calories. Experts used to warn against eating too many eggs because of their high cholesterol content, but research has shown that dietary cholesterol doesn’t significantly raise blood cholesterol. Look for organic eggs from hens that are allowed to roam. Omega-3 enriched eggs (which come from hens whose feed is supplemented with flaxseeds) and high-DHA omega-3 eggs (which come from vegetarian hens whole feed is supplemented with algae) are excellent choices because the essential fatty acids are important for baby’s brain and nervous system development.

Nutritional yeast

Nutritional yeast is an exceptional source of almost all B complex vitamins as well as being high in protein. Look for nutritional yeast flakes enriched with vitamin B12 like Red Star® Vegetarian Support Formula. Nutritional yeast flakes can be added to soups, sauces, eggs, cereals, smoothies, and other foods.

Nuts and Seeds

Nuts and seeds are good sources of fiber, protein, minerals, and essential fatty acids. Be sure to eat flaxseeds, hemp seeds, chia seeds, pumpkin seeds, and/or walnuts to get omega-3 fatty acids, which are important for baby’s brain and nervous system development as well as your own health. Nuts and seeds can be eaten raw or toasted. Small seeds like sesame and flax must be ground in a coffee grinder, seed grinder, or blender in order for nutrients to be utilized. Nut and seed butters are delicious on crackers or toast or used as a dip or sauce.

Note: Allergies to peanut products affect approximately 1% of the U.S. population. Although there hasn’t been extensive research on fetal sensitization, recent studies suggest that when a pregnant woman consumes peanut products, the fetus may be exposed to peanut allergens. If there is a predisposition to allergies, the infant could develop a peanut allergy. Therefore, parents with food allergies and/or family histories of nut allergies may want to avoid peanuts while pregnant or breastfeeding. Almond butter, cashew butter, pumpkin seed butter, or tahini (sesame seed butter) can replace peanut butter in any of the recipes in this book.

Whole Grains

Whole grains supply fiber, minerals, B complex vitamins, and protein. Buy the least processed grain types you can find. Many commercially prepared grains have the germ and bran removed to increase shelf life and shorten preparation time. Even if they are “enriched,” this does not replace the nutrition that was lost in the processing.

Pregnancy and lactation are wonderful, special times in a woman’s life. The baby you are nurturing is truly an incredible gift, and the experience of giving birth is something you will always remember and cherish. Eating these super foods will help you to feel strong and vibrant so you will be able to make the most of this special time.

Cathe Olson is the author of “Simply Natural Baby Food” and “The Vegetarian Mother’s Cookbook: Whole foods to nourish pregnant and breastfeeding women – and their families.” For more information or to order a book, visit



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