Many vegetarians, myself included, are used to facing concerns and prejudices about their diet, anything from humorous comments to long lectures. Those of us who are more familiar with vegetarianism know the change this diet can do both to our personal health and environment, not to mention to the welfare of animals. (See for example 101 Reasons Why I’m a Vegetarian by Pamela Rice at http://www.vivavegie.org/vv101/.) For a pregnant woman, however, vegetarianism can arouse many concerns; does a meat-free diet give me all the necessary nutrients I need to have a healthy baby?
First, the idea that one needs meat to get all the necessary prenatal nutrients is a cultural assumption, not a scientific fact. There is no indication in the medical literature that the addition of meat to a pregnant woman’s diet improves the outcome of her pregnancy or somehow results in a healthier baby. There’s plenty of evidence that vegetarian and vegan women have healthy pregnancies and good-sized, healthy babies
Many pregnant vegetarian women worry that they’re not getting enough protein, and that’s why they often start eating fish just to fill the protein need. Actually, most women, including vegetarians, eat enough protein to meet the needs of a pregnant woman. A woman’s body needs about 300 extra calories per day to grow a healthy baby, and the need for protein increases only by 20 percent. Extra calories in the diet are simply stored in the body as fat. Sources of protein are for example whole grains, soy foods, nuts (also as butter), seeds, fruits and vegetables. The last mentioned are also full of antioxidants. A rule of thumb is to vary the colors of the fruit and vegetables you eat.
Fish is also eaten because of omega-3 fatty acids that are important for the development of the brain and maintenance of the central nervous system. However fish oil isn’t the only source of omega-3 fatty acids, they are also available for example from walnuts (also oil), soy products and soybean oil.
Your developing baby also needs calcium to grow strong bones and teeth, a healthy heart, nerves, and muscles, and to develop normal heart rhythm and blood clotting abilities. If you don’t get enough calcium in your diet, your baby will leach it from your bones, which may impair your own health later on.
Milk is not the only source of calcium, and billions of women worldwide consume no milk and produce perfectly healthy and strong children. Good sources are for example: broccoli, seeds, sea vegetables, fortified orange juice, calcium-processed tofu, fortified soy and rice milk. A woman’s body actually absorbs and retains calcium more efficiently during pregnancy.
Just as important is Vitamin D which is essential for the absorption of calcium and for the formation of your baby’s bones in utero. Your body makes Vitamin D of sun exposure, but since your needs during pregnancy double, it’s safer to make sure you have a dietary source of this nutrient. Vegetarian sources include egg yolks, fortified dairy products, and many soy and rice milks.
B-12 is also an important vitamin that can be found in fortified juices, cereals and meat substitutes; plants have very little of it. Sea vegetables, tempeh, and other foods, however, are said to be less reliable sources of vitamin B-12. Failure to obtain enough B12 could cause your baby to be born with very low stores, which can lead to B12 deficiency (weakness, loss of reflexes, failure to thrive, delayed development, muscle wasting, and irreversible brain damage.)
When the baby’s blood is formed, the mother’s blood volume rises to guarantee enough oxygen to her child. Therefore the need for iron increases during pregnancy, and many woman, vegetarians or not, experience anemia. Even if you’re a healthy eater, diet alone may not give you enough iron and therefore your doctor may recommend you to take a daily iron supplement in the second and third trimesters.
Iron-rich foods are for example green leafy vegetables, beans, dried fruits (for example raisins), sea vegetables, nuts and seeds. Notice that vitamin C (for example in orange juice) helps your body absorb iron. Avoid excess consumption of tea, coffee and milk products or drink them between meals as they decrease iron absorption.
All this information and recommendations probably make you feel even more confused and you wonder if you will ever remember it all. Don’t worry. It is recommended to eat according to your appetite, just limit junk food – fat, sugar and refined foods – as they displace more nutrient-dense foods. As long as you gain weight at an appropriate rate, the rest will fall in place. So relax and enjoy your pregnancy, and if you feel doubtful about anything, you can always discuss it with your doctor.
Compiled by Skuld
“Some women may not like to hear this, but the female body was designed for reproduction. Therefore, it is amazingly efficient. The female body is a miracle, and it’s designed to survive under adverse conditions.”- John McDougall, M.D.
Sources:Lorente, Carol Wiley (1997). Worry-free pregnancy: vegetarian moms-to-be can relax. A meatless diet is healthful for both mother and child. Vegetarian Times 1997.~ Wilson. Melanie (2003). A Successful Veg Pregnancy. Vegetarian Baby & Child Online Magazine http://vegetarianbaby.com/articles/successpreg.shtml