I am currently 9 months pregnant with my first child and have maintained my vegetarian diet throughout. I also plan on breastfeeding while continuing eating a plant-based diet. Many people act surprised that I can feel as good as I do and that my baby’s development has been optimal up until now. In fact, many moms-to-be who had a vegetarian diet before conceiving face a dilemma of whether to continue with this diet or to begin eating meat during their pregnancy, with the concern that they may harm their baby if they don’t. The fact is that it is perfectly safe and possible to have a healthy vegetarian pregnancy and beyond as well. You just have to ensure that you are making smart choices and meeting all of your needs through whole foods.
There are many people who claim that it is unsafe to have a vegetarian pregnancy due to suboptimal quality and quantity of protein among other nutrients. However, when reviewing the research you will see that most studies have shown no difference in pregnancy outcomes when comparing balanced omnivorous diets with balanced vegetarian diets.
Here are some general guidelines to keep in mind when planning a vegetarian pregnancy:
- Ensure an optimal protein intake: an increase of 25-30g of protein in addition to pre-pregnancy requirements is the general guideline (a total of about 75g daily). This is easily achieved by having a protein shake daily in addition to your usual protein-rich foods throughout the day. It is also the equivalent of eating 2 eggs, 1 avocado and 1 cup of soy milk in one day. Optimal amounts of protein are imperative during a pregnancy and lower your risk of pre-eclampsia. Good sources of protein include organic plain yogurt, eggs, chickpeas, lentils, peas, tempeh, quinoa and peanut butter.
- Calcium – you need about 1g daily, especially in the second trimester. This is easily achievable by eating almonds, green leafy vegetables, bok choy, broccoli, beans, sunflower seeds and calcium-fortified nondairy milks. In fact, plant based calcium is better absorbed than calcium from dairy products.
- Essential fatty acids: most studies done on the benefits of the omega 3 fatty acid docosahexanoic acid (DHA) use a dosage of 400mg daily. This fatty acid is extremely important for proper brain development in your baby. Your daily requirement is easily achieved by eating foods high in alpha linolenic acid (ALA), which we are able to convert to DHA. Such foods include flaxseeds and chia seeds. In addition to this, you can include an algae oil into your diet such as Ascenta’s NutraVege DHA oil.
- Folic acid is paramount in order to prevent neural tube defects in addition to many other functions. Leafy greens and legumes are great sources for this. Also keep in mind that it is general practice to recommend supplemental folic acid in our society, so meeting this requirement should not be an issue for most women. Most women require 1mg daily. However, there are some women who are not able to utilize the folic acid from most multivitamins and from fortified foods and might require the active form of folic acid.
- Iron – you need about 27mg daily and this is usually easily found in a healthy vegetarian diet rich in legumes, leafy green vegetables, beets, black strap molasses, nuts and seeds. Also, most prenatal vitamins, which most pregnant women take, contain iron.
- Vitamin B12 – eggs, milk and cheese are sources of vitamin B12 and there are many fortified foods such as nutritional yeast that also contain it.
- Zinc – needs for zinc increase during pregnancy and it’s also important to keep in mind that plant-based zinc is less absorbable than animal sourced. Good sources plant-based zinc include tofu, tempeh, chickpeas, pinto beans, lentils, cashews and chia seeds.
By striving for a good quality vegetarian diet you will also be preventing a very common occurrence of pregnancy, constipation, due to the high amounts of fiber that this diet offers. Make sure you drink plenty of water as well to prevent constipation. Optimal fiber intake can also help to prevent diabetes, which is another benefit of a good quality vegetarian diet. You will also most likely be eating high amounts of vitamin C which is fundamental for vein health, also decreasing your risk of getting varicose veins. Adding blueberries, cranberries, and blackberries to your protein shake provides a great bioflavonoid content which is also important for preventing varicosities.
Having a good quality veggie pregnancy is not harmful to your child during gestation or in the long term. Do not feel guilty or pressured to change your dietary habits due to people’s judgements and opinions. The research proves that there is no harm as long as it is done properly. If you are ever unsure about how to ensure proper nutrition during your pregnancy, consult an expert such a naturopathic doctor.
Aida Martinez Chorro is a naturopathic doctor and homeopath who loves working with children and their families. She uses safe and natural interventions to help children with autism, digestive conditions, as well as working with those who want to be proactive about their aging brain and who have family histories of dementia. But what she’s really passionate about is giving families the results they want to see and helping them lead happier lives together.
She practices at the North Toronto Homeopathic Medicine and Wellness Centre in the Yonge and Lawrence neighbourhood. You can find out more information by calling 647-887-8117 or by visiting www.thehealthpath.ca