Following a vegetarian diet while pregnant? Here’s everything you need to know to ensure you and your baby get all the nutrients you need. By Tammy Jacks
Think it’s impossible to get all the nutrients you need on a vegetarian diet while pregnant? Think again! As long as you plan carefully and ensure you eat a wide variety of vegetarian foods and focus on including foods rich in key nutrients for a healthy pregnancy, it’s perfectly healthy, says Johannesburg-based dietician, Mayuri Bhawan.
Key nutrients for a healthy vegetarian diet (during pregnancy)
If you want to follow a vegetarian diet throughout your pregnancy, Mayuri suggests choosing a wide variety of wholegrains, fruit, vegetables, legumes, nuts and seeds, dairy products and/or eggs. This will help to ensure that you and your baby get the energy and nutrients you need for optimal health.
Here are the key nutrients you need to ensure you’re getting enough of:
When you’re pregnant, your body needs more iron to keep up with the increased blood supply. Iron is an important nutrient, because it assists the body in making haemoglobin – a substance in red blood cells that transports oxygen throughout the body.
Iron exists in foods in two forms: heme iron and non-heme iron, explains Mayuri. Heme iron is mostly present in animal products such as red meat, which means that vegetarians rely more on non-heme iron, found in plant foods.
However, “Supplementation is necessary as we rarely have enough iron stores to meet our needs during pregnancy, so taking an iron supplement will help to ensure you’re meeting your daily requirements, especially in the third trimester. This is also when you’ll need to take an iron supplement along with eating iron-rich foods,” adds Mayuri.
NOTE: Iron supplements shouldn’t be taken with calcium supplements and should be taken between meals to maximise their absorption.
Heme iron food sources:
- Eggs (especially the yolks)
Non-heme iron food sources:
- Dried beans
- Wholegrains such as millet, oats and brown rice
- Nuts (almonds, brazil nuts) and
- Greens such as broccoli, kale, spinach and asparagus
Tips to increase iron absorption:
- Consume foods high in vitamin C (citrus fruits and juices, strawberries, kiwi fruit, tomatoes, broccoli) along with the iron-rich foods.
- Avoid drinking tea and coffee with meals (tannins in tea and coffee inhibit iron absorption).
- Avoid taking calcium supplements with meals.
- Dairy foods
- Calcium-fortified foods (soy and nut milks)
- Brazil nuts,
- Sesame seeds
- Unhulled tahini (sesame seed paste)
Tips to increase absorption of calcium:
- Ensure you’re getting enough vitamin D (check your levels with your GP).
- Limit salt intake as salt increases calcium excretion.
- Limit caffeine intake as it inhibits calcium absorption. Plus, it’s not advisable to consume large amounts of caffeine during pregnancy.
- Dark green leafy vegetables (spinach, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, romaine lettuce, asparagus)
- Black eyed peas
- Kidney beans
- Green peas
- Legumes such as beans, lentils and chickpeas
- Soy foods such as tofu, tempeh, soy beans, soy milk, soy yoghurt, textured vegetable protein (often found in soy mince products as well as vegetarian protein powders)
- Dairy foods
Top tip: If you eat a variety of foods and don’t restrict your calorie intake, you are likely to get enough protein.
- Ground flaxseed
- Hemp seeds
- Canola oil
- Baked beans
- Cow’s milk
Tips to increase zinc absorption:
- Soak legumes before cooking or use canned
- Eat plenty of sprouted beans, grains and seeds and bread that contains yeast. Ensure that sprouted beans are washed and cooked well before you eat them.
- Vitamin D-fortified foods (margarine and some milks)
- You can also get enough vitamin D by exposing your arms and legs to 10 minutes of sunshine per day without sunscreen.
ALSO SEE: The dos and don’ts of supplementing during pregnancy
May suggests you take these supplements throughout your pregnancy:
Sufficient calcium is most crucial during the last three months of pregnancy as it ensures optimal bone mineral density as well as bone, tooth, muscle and nerve development in growing babies. Supplementation may also reduce hypertension and lower the risk of pre-eclampsia. The recommended amount is 1 000mg/day.
Pregnant women need an extra 700 to 800mg of iron throughout pregnancy. Iron supplementation may be particularly necessary during the third trimester, or earlier in pregnancy if levels are low.
Vitamin D supplementation during pregnancy has been linked to healthy birth weights and newborn weight gain. Babies born to moms with low vitamin D levels are at risk of vitamin D deficiency. Consider a supplement if you rarely go outside. The recommended amount is 600IU per day.
This is an essential nutrient because it can’t be produced in adequate quantities to meet the increased demands of pregnancy. Choline plays an important role in the health of cell membranes and foetal brain development. Most supplements don’t offer sufficient amounts, so include food sources such as eggs, kidney or navy beans and low-fat milk in your diet.
The most important role of folic acid is to prevent neural tube defects such as spina bifida and anencephaly in developing babies. Since the neural tube closes by day 28 of gestation, supplementation with folic acid and the consumption of folate rich or folate fortified foods is essential – even before conception, says May. Folic acid supplementation has also been found to reduce pre-term labour, promote a healthy nervous system and is essential for the formation of red and white blood cells. The recommended amount is 600mcg per day.
Docosahexaenoic (DHA) is a type of fat that’s mainly found in fatty fish and is important for your baby’s neurological development. DHA can be made from another fat, called linolenic acid, that’s found in flaxseed, flaxseed oil, canola oil, walnuts, and soybeans.
Because it can be very difficult to obtain DHA from only non-fish sources, you may want to take an omega-3 supplement derived from algae, adds May.
Following a vegetarian diet while breastfeeding
Once you’ve had your baby, the good news is, you don’t have to worry that your vegetarian diet will have a negative impact on the quality of your breastmilk, says May. The only time your breastmilk will be compromised is if your GP picks up that you have a vitamin-mineral deficiency. However, a diet that includes a variety of foods and that’s calorie dense, should provide you with all the nutrients your body needs to produce good breastmilk for your little one.
If you’d like to book a consult with Mayuri at Nutritional Solutions, click here or call 011 023 8051.
Tammy is a wife, mom and freelance writer with 15 years’ experience in the media industry. She specialises in general lifestyle topics related to health, wellness and parenting. Tammy has a passion for fitness and the great outdoors. If she’s not running around after her daughter, you’ll find her off the beaten track, running, hiking or riding her bike. Learn more about Tammy Jacks .