Tips for ensuring that your diet is healthy and beneficial, not dangerous for your baby.
A vegan or vegetarian must keep a balanced diet and supplement properly to maintain a healthy body; even more so while pregnant or lactating. Some precautions need to be taken in your diet during pregnancy and lactation because nutrients are not absorbed as well as they would be from meat. In some cases, supplements or fortified foods need to be incorporated in order to ensure a healthy diet especially when it is a mother carrying a child or breast feeding. Vegetarians have lower rates of heart disease, obesity, diabetes and many cancers. The high consumption of fruits, vegetables, legumes, unrefined cereals and nuts commonly found in vegetarian diets are linked to the lower risk of the development of most degenerative diseases. Many nutrients thought only to be more easily found in meats can be absorbed correctly with proper planning. Some of the nutrients important to pregnant and lactating women include protein, iron, vitamin B-12, calcium and vitamin D if avoiding milk products. Vitamin B-12 is the most important supplement to take, due to the limited amount found in non-meat products. Without good planning, vegetarians may be at risk for deficiencies in vitamin B-12, vitamin D, calcium, protein and iodine.
Vitamin B-12 works with folic acid to synthesize DNA and red blood cells. This will maintain the myelin sheath of nerve cells. A deficiency may go unnoticed until many years later because it is stored in the liver and kidneys. Vitamin B-12 is found only from animal sources such as tuna, beef or milk products. A vegan must take B-12 supplements and it is strongly recommended vegetarians supplement as well. Four daily servings of B-12 are recommended during pregnancy and lactation and this can be obtained through fortified foods such as soymilk, tofu, cereals and nutritional yeast. Deficiencies in vitamin B-12 may create problems such as anemia, neurological complications and cognitive abilities. Breast-fed infants with this deficiency will then be at risk for developmental abnormalities, growth failure and anemia.
Vitamin D enables the utilization of calcium. These nutrients are both critical for the development of teeth and bones. Sources of vitamin D is usually obtained from animal products but skin exposure to natural light may be another source. Vitamin D fortified foods may also include cow’s milk, most soymilk and some breakfast cereals. Supplementation may be needed, especially for those women who do not have much exposure to sunlight. Plant foods may inhibit the bioavailability of calcium due to the oxalates and phytates found in them. Some plant foods such as bok choy, kale and broccoli have a high calcium bioavailability as well soybeans. Pregnant women and their children will have a higher bone mineral density if the mother takes enough calcium during the second and third trimester.
The main function of iron is to form hemoglobin, this will also prevent anemia. An increased amount of maternal blood volume and transfer of iron to the placenta and fetus make an increased intake of iron a necessity in the second and third trimester. A few more inhibitors of iron absorption include coffee, calcium and fiber. Vitamin C may help absorption by reducing the inhibitory effects of phytate. Vegetarians are encouraged in eating foods high in iron such as soy products, tofu, beans, lentils, spinach, molasses, whole wheat breads, peas, dried beans, apricots, prunes and raisins. There appears to be no clear evidence iron supplements improve the pregnancy outcome, but it will help prevent anemia.
Unsaturated fatty acids improve cell membrane function and help in the development and functioning of the brain nervous system. There are two types of polyunsaturated fatty acids: linolenic acid (n-6) and alpha-linolenic acid (n-3). The alpha-linolenic acid is converted to DHA and EPA. DHA is important to the development of neural and retinal membranes during the later part of gestation and early postnatal life. A developing fetus obtains long-chain polyunsaturated fatty acids from the mother’s plasma. DHA will also aid in visual function and neurofunction during pregnancy and lactation. Studies suggest fatty acids may also affect the length of gestation, size of infant, preeclampsia and depression. Lower amounts of DHA have been found in the fetal plasma of vegetarian mothers than found in omnivore mothers. Plant sources and oils that contain alpha-linolenic acids (n-3) include flaxseeds, walnuts, soybeans, mungo beans linseed oil and canola oil.
Additional protein is essential during pregnancy by adding about 21 grams of protein per day, which is used in the placenta, for the fetus and maternal tissues during the second and third trimesters. Sources of protein include isolated soy protein, legumes, nuts, tofu and eggs. Vegetarians should consume more protein because the proteins from foods such as cereals and legumes are much less digestible.