4 Key Nutrients for a Healthy Vegetarian Pregnancy
A nutritious diet is essential for every mother-to-be as nutritional deficiencies are common during pregnancy, but for the vegetarian mamma, it is even more important.
A vegetarian diet can be a very healthy way to eat during pregnancy, it just needs a little more planning. Let’s explore a few of the key nutrients you need to keep an eye on if you’re a vegetarian mamma.
Iron deficiency is relatively common during pregnancy, but it is even more common for mamma’s who eat a vegetarian diet (1). During pregnancy, there is a greater demand on the body to produce more blood to help deliver nutrients through to the placenta. And of course, iron is a key mineral that is part of the oxygen-transporting red blood cells. Even though red meat is a top source of iron, following a vegetarian diet doesn’t mean that your iron intake has to be compromised.
Good sources of iron include legumes such as beans, peas and lentils; dark green leafy vegetables; dried fruits; nuts; fortified soy milks; breakfast cereals and whole meal breads. Vitamin C helps with the absorption of iron from plant foods, so it is a great idea to have a small glass of orange juice or citrus fruits with your meal. It is also a good idea to limit how much tea and coffee you drink with meals as these can affect the ability of your body to absorb iron. However, if you’re struggling with low iron levels, you may need to review your pregnancy supplements with your health care practitioner and swap to one with some added iron.
We need a range of B-group vitamins during pregnancy, including B2 (riboflavin), vitamin B9 (folic acid) and vitamin B12 (cobalamin). Although most B group vitamins are easily sourced from plant-based foods, vitamin B12 can be a more problematic, especially when following a vegetarian or vegan diet (2). Vitamin B12 is important for healthy red blood cells as well as the maintenance of the nervous system. Furthermore, low vitamin B12 intake can increase your baby’s risk of a neural tube defect.
Vitamin B12 is mostly found in animal foods as plant foods are a very poor source of it. However, you will find it in dairy products, fortified tofu, soy milk and some cereals so look carefully on the labels. If you’re following a vegan diet, you may need B12 supplements or injections during pregnancy to assist in meeting your requirements. Be sure to discuss your options with your doctor before adding a supplement routine.
Calcium is vital for the development of your baby’s bones, teeth and cells, so ensuring your diet is high in this nutrient is crucial (3). Dairy products are an excellent source of dietary calcium, but if you have chosen not to include these, then vegetarian options can be found. Tofu that has been set with calcium, almonds, sesame seeds, tahini and dried fruit are rich in calcium. You can also purchase calcium-fortified plant products to help meet your pregnancy calcium needs.
Although you can get some ALA omega-3 from plant foods such as chia and flaxseeds, most long chain DHA and EPA, docosahexaenoic acid and eicosapentaenoic acid, which are used to support your baby’s brain growth and development come from animal foods, with of course the best source being fish (4). The reason that fish are so high in these types of omega-3s is that their diet is rich in the algae which produce them! So, you can go straight to the source and look for algal DHA and EPA omega-3 supplements that will help to support your baby’s growth and development.
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- Piccoli et al (2015). Vegan-vegetarian diets in pregnancy: danger or panacea? A systematic, narrative review. Obstetrics and Gynaecology. 122(5): 623-633.
- Melina et al (2016). Position of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics: Vegetarian Diets. Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. 116(12): 1970-1980.
- Kovacs, C. (2015). Calcium, phosphorus and bone metabolism in the fetus and newborn. Early Human Development. 91(11): 623-628.
- Mulder et al (2018). Fetal DHA inadequacy and the impact on child neurodevelopment: a follow up of a randomised trail of maternal DHA supplementation in pregnancy. British Journal of Nutrition. 119(3): 271-279.
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