This is for all the vegetarian and vegan mothers-to-be out there. As plant-based diets have significantly increased over the past years, it’s not uncommon for individuals to receive concerns from friends and family regarding their dietary choices whilst pregnant. Well I’m here to tell you that it is entirely possible to have a health balanced diet whilst following a vegan or vegetarian lifestyle during pregnancy. Iron, Iodine, Calcium and Vitamin D, Vitamin B6 and B12 are the main nutrients that are often more difficult to get on a vegan and vegetarian diet, due to the main sources being from animal products. However this article will walk you through the best food sources for each nutrient along with why they are important during pregnancy.
Iron is important for making red blood cells which carry oxygen around the body. A lack of iron especially during pregnancy can lead to iron deficiency anaemia. During pregnancy a lack of iron can also put you and your baby at risk of premature delivery and low birth weight. The majority of the UK get their iron intake from meat and meat products, which can make it overwhelming for some individuals following a vegetarian/vegan lifestyle. However foods like, Pulses, Dark green vegetables, Wholemeal Bread, Eggs (for vegetarians), Fortified breakfast cereals (look for the ones with added iron) and Dried fruit are great sources of iron. Also by consuming vitamin C alongside iron intake helps the absorption of iron.
Iodine is important for a healthy thyroid function. Your thyroid hormones helps to keep your metabolic rate healthy. By making sure you’re getting enough iodine whilst pregnant helps to ensure your baby develops a healthy and normal thyroid too. Plant foods containing iodine include wholegrains, green beans, courgettes, kale, strawberries and potatoes (with skin). However the amount of iodine tend to be low and variable depending on how much iodine is present in the soil. Other sources include breakfast cereals, nuts and seeds. Seaweed absorbs iodine from seawater therefore making it an excellent source. However due to the high concentration some healthcare professional advice not consuming seaweed more than once a week during pregnancy.
Calcium is extremely important during pregnancy as it helps your baby grow a healthy heart, nerves and muscles, as well as developing a normal heart rhythm and making sure their blood clots normally. If you’re a vegetarian who consumes dairy products then calcium intake doesn’t seem to be an issue as sources are very accessible. For vegan’s foods such as, dark green leafy vegetables, pulses, fortified unsweetened soya, rice and oat drinks, brown and white bread, calcium-set tofu, sesame seeds and tahini and dried fruit contain calcium
Vitamin D helps regulate the amount of calcium and phosphate in the body. A lack of vitamin D can lead to bone deformities such as rickets in children and bone pain caused by a condition called osteomalacia in adults. During late March/early April to the end of September, most individuals should be able to get all the vitamin D they need from sunlight. However during October to early march we may not get enough vitamin D directly from the sunlight, therefore we need to get our vitamin D from other sources. Foods that contain vitamin D, which are suitable for vegetarians include, cow’s milk and egg yolks. For those following a vegan and vegetarian diet, food products fortified with vitamin D, for example, orange juice and breakfast cereals are good sources. However due to it being difficult for individuals following a vegan or vegetarian diet to consume all their required (10mcg) from food sources a dietary supplement may be recommended. Please make sure you speak to your healthcare professional before taking any supplements to make sure they are suitable.
Vitamin B6 also known as pyridoxine is vital for the development of your baby’s nervous system and brain throughout each week of pregnancy. Some research has shown vitamin B6 during pregnancy can help to alleviate nausea and vomiting. Sources of vitamin B6 include, beans, bananas, papayas, garlic, avocadoes, wholegrains, sweet potatoes and spinach.
Vitamin B12 is important during pregnancy as it helps the formation of baby’s neural tube, brain and spinal development. Together with vitamin B9 (folate) it works to help produce DNA synthesis and red blood cells. Research has also highlighted the importance of vitamin B12 with development of baby’s nerves system and red blood cell production. Therefore if you do not get enough vitamin B12 you may develop anaemia as the cells become large and the nucleus of the cell isn’t formed properly. You may also notice that you’ve become fatigued easily and feel tried and weak. You also experience dizziness, tingling in your hands and feet and full short of breath. There are some birth defects that occur when you’re not consuming enough vitamin B12. These include, spina bifida, encephalocele) parts of the brain begins to push out) and Anencephaly (spinal cord and brain do not form probably)
Foods sources of vitamin B12 include, milk, cheese (choose the lower fat varieties), eggs, yogurt and yeast extract (marmite). Fortified products such as breakfast cereals, unsweetened soya drinks are also good sources. However as sources can be limited, a supplement may be recommended. However it’s important to speak to your healthcare professional first.
Supplements and Multivitamins
On top of a health well-balanced diet, during pregnancy you need to take some extra supplements too. The Department of Health in the UK recommends that all pregnant women take a supplement containing 10 micrograms of vitamin D alongside 400 micrograms folic acid (for the first 12 weeks of pregnancy).
As stated above, there are certain nutrients that are more difficult to get in a vegetarian and vegan diet. Therefore taking a multivitamin can be a safeguard against low stores or deficiencies. However before taking a multivitamin it’s important you check with a health care professional. This is because you may already be getting all the nutrients you need into your diet so a multivitamin is unnecessary. They may recommend taking a single supplement for example Vitamin B12. Also, when taking a multivitamin tablet its extremely important not to take ones that contain vitamin A, as this can be harmful to your baby.
Take Home Message
Consuming a good balance and variety of foods each day is one of the most important things you can do whilst pregnant. When following a vegetarian or vegan lifestyle there are certain nutrients to take into account. By looking at your overall diet (some choose to write a food diary) you may see areas to improve. However before taking any supplements and making drastic changes to your diet, its extremely important to seek advice from a registered healthcare professional first, for example a registered dietitian or nutritionist. They will give you the correct and most practical advice for you as an individual.