If you’re a vegetarian, you may be feeling healthy as you embark on pregnancy. But does your diet pose any risks to your growing baby?
“Like any pregnant mum, a vegetarian needs to look at the five food groups, and make sure that they eat a balance of foods from each group,” says Dr Rana Conway, author of What to eat when you’re Pregnant and Vegetarian.
The five food groups are:
- Fruits and vegetable
- Dairy produce
- Fats and oils
A super simple meal plan
The easiest way to address this need for a balanced diet, says Conway, is to include carbohydrate, protein and some fruit and vegetables in every meal. “Try not to have the same carbohydrate and protein food each time,” she says. “This will make you more likely to get every nutrient you need. Organising your meals like this need not be complicated.”
Conway offers sample vegetarian meal plans in her book. You could try:
- Breakfast: Cereal, milk plus fresh or dried fruit
- Lunch: Beans on toast with tomatoes
- Supper: Chickpea curry with basmati rice, yogurt and mango chutney, followed by fruit
Don’t overdo the cheese
“Try to think about what could be missing from your diet,” Conway advises. A simple meal of pasta and tomato sauce, for example, lacks protein. You could add cheese, or throw some chickpeas into your pasta sauce. “But try not to have cheese all the time. Dairy produce doesn’t offer much iron, and there is a lot of saturated fat in cheese. Often, if you eat out, the only vegetarian option will include cheese.” Lentils, chickpeas and kidney beans are great sources of protein.
How do I get enough iron?
A diet rich in iron is essential during pregnancy. Your body uses iron to build red blood cells, enabling nutrients and oxygen to reach your baby. During pregnancy, you need 14.8 milligrams of iron daily.
Most pregnant vegetarians are concerned about how to ensure their ironlevels are sufficiently high. “Recent studies indicate that vegetarian pregnant woman are no more likely to be anaemic than non-vegetarians,” says Conway.
Eat breakfast cereals fortified with iron to ensure your iron levels remain high. Bread and dried apricots are also great sources of iron – and toast or a handful of dried fruit makes an easy snack. But don’t rely on spinach as an iron source, Conway says. “Although spinach contains iron, it also contains salicylic acid which binds the iron, meaning that most of the iron passes through you rather than being absorbed.”
Take Omega-3 supplements
Conway advises pregnant women take a supplement containing omega-3 fatty acids, found in oily fish. ‘It’s the long-chain omega-3s that are important for your baby’s brain and eye development,’ she says. ‘Some vegetarians eat flaxseeds or walnuts as an alternative to oily fish, but these only contain short-chain omega- 3s. They are healthy foods, but they are not a good substitute.’
Check the label of your supplement carefully: it should contain DHA omega 3 fatty acids, says Conway. These are made from vegetarian-friendly algae – the source from which fish also gain fatty acids.
What other supplements should I be taking?
Folic acid is essential while you are trying to get pregnant and during the first trimester of pregnancy. This helps prevent your baby from developing neural tube defects such as spina bifida. While folic acid can be found in foods such as Marmite, fortified cereals and oatbran, Conway suggests taking a folic acid supplement prior to conception and for the first 12 weeks of pregnancy to ensure that you get enough.
You should also take a vitamin D supplement – you need 10 micrograms a day throughout pregnancy and while breastfeeding. Vitamin D regulates the amount of calcium and phosphate in your body, maintaining your tooth and bone health. New studies indicate that higher vitamin D levels during pregnancy may also boost your child’s muscle growth.
Some vitamin D tablets are made using lanolin, a waxy substance secreted by sheep’s skin that is found in their wool. Conway says that vegetarians differ on whether they feel able to consume a supplement derived from this source. You can source lanolin-free vegetarian pregnancy vitamin D supplements on the internet.
Conway emphasises that when you look for supplements, always remember that you need one for pregnant women, not primarily for vegetarians.
Three reasons why it’s great to be vegetarian and pregnant
Conway reminds us that there are some great advantages to being vegetarian while you’re pregnant. “Vegetarians are more likely to be eating their 5 portions of fruit and veg a day. They are less likely to be overweight or suffer from related problems such as high blood pressure or gestational diabetes. Their babies are also less likely to suffer from complications associated with having an overweight mother.”
What our mums say about being vegetarian and pregnant
“I’m veggie and currently 30 weeks pregnant. I’ve had no problems at all with my diet through pregnancy. The main potential issue is a lack of iron, but you can get that through green vegetables. It’s never been suggested to me by the midwife or doctor that my diet might be a problem.” cookieandcream
“I’m a bit of a rubbish vegetarian. I eat way too many carbs and cheese and hardly any lentils but I’ve tried very hard to eat lots of vegetables, salad and eggs since being pregnant, especially in the first trimester.” xxfairyxdustxx
“I’m a vegetarian and have been since I was about 10. I have had two healthy pregnancies and two healthy little girls. They do eat everything: meat, fish and Quorn etc. In some things they prefer the veggie option.” 3girlywhirlys