If you follow a vegetarian way of eating and are either pregnant or planning a pregnancy, then you may be wondering if cutting out meat and other animal foods at this time is a good idea. The great news is that the answer is a clear ‘yes’ for staying a vegetarian when you’re pregnant.
A vegetarian diet is a super healthy way to eat. And, just like with any way of eating, so long as you pay attention to eating a varied diet, then you will still get all the protein, vitamins, minerals and other nutrients you need. That’s easily done with plenty of fruits, vegetables, wholegrains legumes and nuts.
But no need to just take my word for it. Looking at the scientific research that explored pregnancy outcomes in women who were vegetarian or vegan, a 2015 review of 22 studies found no increase in major birth defects or other serious problems in either the babies or the mothers. Although they did note that vegan and vegetarian women were at higher risk of vitamin B12 and iron deficiencies so more about these nutrients later!
Further endorsement for a vegetarian diet during pregnancy comes from a position paper from the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. They go on to state that plant-based diets are healthy and nutritionally adequate for pregnant women. But they also flag that iron and vitamin B12 are two nutrients that need to be watched out for.
And there just could even be an upside to not eating meat during pregnancy. A 2010 study that tracked the diets and health of 379 pregnant women found a vegetarian diet in the first trimester was linked to a lower risk of excessive gestational weight gain.
So now let’s explore a few of the key nutrients you need to keep an eye on if you’re a vegetarian mum to be.
Iron is super important nutrient you need to be aware of because its role in pregnancy is so important. 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. Iron deficiency anaemia is not uncommon during pregnancy, whether a woman is a vegetarian or even a meat eater so is something all women need to be conscious of. 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 wholemeal breads. Vitamin C helps with the absorption of iron from plant foods, so it is a great idea to have a 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 and swap to one with some added iron.
Then we have the B-group vitamins, including vitamin B12 and folic acid, that are also critical in pregnancy. Being deficient in either of these vitamins has been shown to further increase the risk of having a baby with neural tube defects such as spina bifida.
Vitamin B12 is also important for healthy red blood cells as well as the maintenance of the nervous system. Vitamin B12 is mostly found in animal foods as plant foods are a very poor source of it. But you will find it in 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.
Folic acid helps prevent neural tube defects to the spine and brain, which occur in the first month of pregnancy, which is why taking a folic acid supplement is so important when planning a pregnancy…… as well as ensuring you eat lots of folate-rich foods such as green leafy vegetables and legumes, which I’m sure you will.
Although you can get some ALA omega 3 from plant foods such as chia and flaxseeds, most long chain DHA and EPA, docosanhexanoic acid and eicosapentanoic acid, which are used in your baby’s brain development come from animal foods, with of course the best source being fish. The reason that fish are so high in these types of omega 3 is that there diet is rich in algae which produce them! So, you can go straight to the source and purchase some algal omega 3 supplements that will help to optimise your baby’s brain development.
Finally, there is calcium which is vital for the development of your baby’s bones, teeth and cells, so ensuring your diet is high in this nutrient is crucial. Now, I’m sure you already know that dairy products are excellent high calcium foods, but if you have chosen not to include these, then vegetarian options are equally good. Tofu that has been set with calcium, almonds, sesame seeds, tahini, dried fruit as well as calcium-fortified plant milks are all great sources of calcium.
Now, I’d like you to let me know in the chat box…. which nutrient are you most concerned about getting enough of and what are you going to do to make sure that you meet your quota?
So, let’s summarise:
- There are many health benefits linked to a vegetarian way of eating and the good news is that pregnant women can happily continue to eat this way
- With some attention to proper planning, a vegetarian diet can meet all your nutrient needs for a healthy pregnancy
- If you follow a vegetarian diet, nutrients of special concern for you are include iron, vitamin B12 and omega 3, and calcium too if you don’t eat dairy. So look for alternative sources and keep an eye on your blood levels.
If you’re pregnant, you might like to check out some of my other pregnancy videos on my YouTube channel Nourish. Be sure to hit subscribe so you receive notifications when I upload weekly videos.