Hey Nutrition Lady, how can I optimize my vegetarian diet for pregnancy?
This is a question I get a lot, especially since a) I'm the Nutrition Lady, b) I've been lacto-ovo vegetarian for over 25 years, and c) I'm currently pregnant with my second child.
I started writing a post about vegetarian pregnancy superfoods than can be useful for optimizing your vegetarian diet during pregnancy, but the egg section was getting so long I decided to devote an entire post just to this single food. So yes, eggs are right up at the top of my list of vegetarian pregnancy superfoods.
Let's start by recognizing that not every vegetarian eats eggs. I get this. I know this. But for those of you who do include eggs in your definition of vegetarianism, I strongly recommend them as a regular, daily part of your diet while pregnant. Here are three important reasons why:
Eggs are a convenient source of high-quality protein. You probably already knew that your protein requirements go up during pregnancy, but what you might not realize is exactly by how much. This is because up until very recently all of the estimates on protein requirements during pregnancy were based on research from non-pregnant people, including men.
According to a recent study that directly estimates protein requirements at various stages of pregnancy, the current dietary guidelines of 0.88 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight dramatically underestimate protein needs. The actual protein needs of a pregnant woman are estimated to be 39% higher than the current recommendations in early pregnancy (defined as less than 20 weeks) and a whopping 73% higher in late pregnancy (defined as after 31 weeks).
The actual protein needs of a pregnant woman vary depending on body size and physical activity levels, but a good general estimate to follow is aiming for 80g of protein per day in early pregnancy, and 100g in late pregnancy. An egg offers up 7g of protein, so if you were to whip up a 3-egg omelette for breakfast, you’d already be meeting over 25% of your daily protein requirements in early pregnancy.
Eggs – in particular, egg yolks - are also a rich source of the nutrient choline. A member of the B-vitamin family, choline is a lesser known but incredibly important nutrient during pregnancy; it has many of the same beneficial effects on a developing baby as folate, including preventing neural tube defects.
An estimated 94% of all women do not meet the recommended daily intake of 450mg of choline per day. One of the reasons for this deficiency is that people have been scared away from eating egg yolks due to concerns over cholesterol intake, however, recent research has disproven the theory that dietary cholesterol increases the risk of heart disease. Eat those yolks!
Egg yolks and liver are the two foods with the highest concentrations of choline, so if you don’t eat liver (I don’t!) eggs are an important food for you. Eating just two whole eggs per day will get you half way to the RDI for choline.
If you don’t eat eggs, including a choline supplement in your diet (or ensuring that your prenatal multivitamin contains choline) is really important.
Eggs are one of the few non-seafood sources of DHA (Docosahexaenoic acid), an important Omega-3 fat that is linked to brain development in infants. DHA plays a role in the formation of neurons, and protects the brain from inflammation and damage.
While plant foods such as chia and flax seeds and walnuts do contain good amounts of omega-3’s, these come in the form of ALA, which is not converted efficiently to DHA by our bodies. The best-case estimates of this conversion rate is around 3.8%.
If you don’t eat eggs, you should definitely be taking an algae-based DHA supplement to ensure you’re meeting the DHA needs for yourself and your baby. I *do* eat eggs, but I’ve chosen to take a daily algae oil supplement as well, as research has shown that children born to mothers with a high DHA intakes (1200 – 2200mg) have better cognitive scores than those with lower DHA intakes – even those that meet the RDI (300mg).
If you’re breastfeeding or planning to breastfeed, it’s important to ensure your body has enough DHA, as your intake will directly affect the amount passed to your child through your breast milk.
And guess what? It’s no mistake that eggs are rich in both DHA and choline: choline works synergistically with DHA and enhances how much DHA is incorporated into cells. Mother nature is pretty darn smart!
While protein is found primarily in the egg white, choline and DHA are found exclusively in the egg yolk, so it’s important that you’re consuming whole eggs in order to reap these nutritional benefits.
How many eggs should I be eating?
Great question, folks! We've covered why you should regularly include eggs in your diet during pregnancy, but exactly how many should you strive for? Lily Nichols, a registered dietitian who specializes in pregnancy nutrition, and author of the incredible book Real Food for Pregnancy (<-- affiliate link) recommends that vegetarians consume at least three eggs per day.
Three might sound like a lot, particularly if you're having trouble getting your head out of the old eggs = cholesterol = bad paradigm, but I'll give you a Nutrition Lady pinky swear and promise you it's perfectly fine, and healthy, to eat three eggs per day.
Hey Nutrition Lady, how can I get more eggs into my diet?
I think if you're trying to up your egg consumption you can go with one of two approaches: either sneak 'em in in ways you won't really notice, or just go gangbusters on egg dishes.
- Julia from The Roasted Root has a recipe for a Grape and Blueberry Protein Smoothie that has cooked and cooled scrambled eggs up in it. She promises you totally can't detect it, and it's a great way to add a boost of protein to your smoothies naturally.
- Have you ever tried making Cloud Eggs? Kellie from Food to Glow has a recipe that's got me intrigued!
- For a fun twist on a classic, I love this Egg-In-A-Squash-Hole Recipe.
- These Fried Egg Breakfast Tacos from Hello Veggie look delicious!
- I also love adding a 7-minute egg to my favourite Quick-and-Easy Ramen recipe.
- Sarah from Sustainable Cooks makes Devilled Eggs with Greek yoghurt instead of mayo.
- You could also go for a Smoky Asparagus Quiche if you're in the mood.