What to eat if you are vegetarian and pregnant

You don't need to give up your vegetarian diet when you become pregnant, provided you pay attention to three vital nutrients.

By Janey Macleod

When I became pregnant with my first child, several of my friends assumed that I would be giving up my vegetarian diet. "You'll need to start eating meat again if the baby is to develop properly" was a typical comment. My first reaction was that this was rubbish. After all, I knew that a healthy diet is vital for a successful pregnancy, and what could be healthier than being vegetarian?

But like all mothers-to-be, my overriding concern was for the welfare of my child. I wanted to be sure that I ate the right foods during my pregnancy, and if that meant sacrificing my veggie principles, I would have done so.

So I set about doing some research. As a result, I am now more convinced than ever that a woman does not need to stop being a vegetarian when she becomes pregnant. Vegans too can safely continue with their chosen diet. But you do need to pay attention to what you eat. A poor vegetarian diet could be just as harmful as a poor omnivorous one. In particular, there are three vital elements that you need to watch.

Protein first

Protein is absolutely essential for the health of both mother and child. Fortunately, a balanced vegetarian diet usually contains more than enough protein to meet all your needs. Nutritionists say that, during pregnancy, your protein requirements increase by about 11 percent, to about 60 grams per day. Some experts claim that this figure is unnecessarily high, around 50 grams being a more realistic target.

Either way, you will get all the protein you need if your diet includes plenty of milk, cheese, eggs, soya products (tofu is especially beneficial), lentils and beans. For vegetarians, this won't be a problem, but vegans will need to work harder to ensure their protein intake is adequate. Most individual plant-based protein sources lack all the essential amino acids, and so should be eaten in combination - pulses with grains or with seeds, for example. A dish made with lentils or chickpeas and served with brown rice would be a perfect vegan protein source.

Crank up the calcium

Calcium is important for the development of your baby's bones and teeth. You will need to ensure that your intake is adequate, especially during the later stages of your pregnancy. This is especially true for women under 19, whose own bone development is still taking place.

As a rule of thumb, you should aim to consume at least four portions of calcium-rich foods per day. These foods include milk, cheese, yoghurt, tofu (if made using calcium sulfate as a coagulant), dark green vegetables (kale, broccoli, spinach, etc.), dried fruit, nuts and seeds. Again, vegans might need to work a little harder to ensure their supply, but shouldn't have too much difficulty.

To help absorb the calcium, your body needs a good supply of Vitamin D. This can be found in dairy products, and is also produced by exposure to sunlight. If you are vegan, look for Vitamin D-enriched soya drinks or margarine. However, Vitamin D supplements should only be taken with the approval of your physician or dietician, as an excess of the vitamin could be harmful to your child.

B12: The vital vitamin

You might need to increase your intake of Vitamin B12 during pregnancy as this is essential for the production of tissue and cells. It is also important if you plan to breast-feed your baby. The recommended daily target is 1.5 micrograms per day. Lacto-vegetarians should have no difficulty in achieving this - a single egg, for example, will meet about 80 percent of your daily needs.

Unfortunately, there are few reliable plant-based sources of Vitamin B12. If you are vegan, be sure to include certain fortified foods in you diet. These include vitamin-enriched soya milk and cereals. Yeast extracts such as Marmite and Vecon are a particularly good source. But check the label, as not all brands of these products contain this important vitamin.

To summarise, becoming pregnant does not mean that you will have to compromise your vegetarian or vegan diet, provided it is well-balanced and you take care over what you eat. If you pay particular attention to your intake of protein, calcium and Vitamin B12, you are unlikely to experience diet-related problems during your pregnancy.

May 2003

Please note: Neither Veg World nor its contributors are qualified to give medical or nutritional advice. If in doubt, always consult a suitably-qualified professional.

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