Vegetarian and pregnant: a recipe for disaster?

Being vegetarian is not as uncommon as it used to be in the past with today about 2% of the Australian population, or 1 in 50, report themselves as being vegetarian. In addition around 20% of non-vegetarians are consuming at least 3 or more vegetarian meals a week.

A vegetarian diet is appropriate for any individual during all stages of life and including both pregnancy and lactation, provided though that your diet is nutritionally adequate. This will involve careful planning to ensure you are meeting the needs of your pregnancy.

Different types of vegetarians exist which include:

  • Vegans – ‘no flesh’ or ‘true vegetarians’ that are not allowed any dairy, meat, fish and poultry products
  • Lacto-vegetarians – allowed dairy but no eggs or meat, fish or poultry
  • Lacto-ovo vegetarians – allowed dairy products and eggs, but no red meat, poultry and fish.
  • Macrobiotic diet – allowed whole grain cereals, vegetables, beans and miso soup, minimal fruit and fish, but no dairy, eggs or meats

If you are one of the above there is evidence to suggest that there are health benefits to being vegetarian. For example, you are more likely to have a healthier Body Mass Index, a lower intake of saturated fat, low cholesterol levels and high intake of fibre, keeping your digestive system healthy. However you are at high risk of becoming deficient in certain nutrients, with the vegan diet carrying the greatest risk due to greatest restrictions imposed on diet.

The most common nutrient deficiencies associated with vegetarian diet include vitamin B12, iron, zinc, calcium and quality protein. It is particularly important during pregnancy that a vegetarian mother ensures adequate intake of these due to the increased nutrient requirements that accompany this time of growth.

The following table provides a simplified summary of the roles of these important nutrients and ways that they can be incorporated into the diet, pending on the type of vegetarian one is:

One of the important vitamins in pregnancy is vitamin B12. The way we obtain all of our vitamin B12 requirements is through eating animal meat; hence being vegetarian will place you at high risk of having a deficiency. Vitamin B12 deficiency can have a severe effect on your growing fetus, leading to parts of the brain and spinal cord not developing property, as well as development of severe anaemia which can lead to heart failure in the fetus. If your diet excludes all dairy products, poultry, fish and meat, then fortified food products such as soymilk, or a tablet supplement must be consumed.

Iron deficiency is a common occurrence in vegetarians, given that animal meat is also another good source of iron. Iron is required by the body to help form red blood cells for both you and your baby, and help carry oxygen around the body. Iron-enriched foods that should be incorporated into your vegetarian diet include wholegrain breads and cereals, legumes and nuts, green leafy vegetables, eggs and dried fruit. Vitamin C helps your body absorb iron, so ensure that you consume Vitamin C rich foods such as kiwifruit, berries and oranges at the same time. Vegans should also take iron supplement given diet restrictions, and consume 2 tablespoons of bran a day to avoid becoming constipated with the iron tablets.

Protein provides important building blocks throughout the pregnancy. Non-vegetarians obtain this nutrient mainly from meat sources, so as being a vegetarian you must ensure that you are consuming enough protein from a variety of different food sources every day. Good sources include lentils, legumes, tofu, soy products, and soy drinks fortified with calcium.

Being vegetarian does not make it any more difficult to achieve optimal health outcomes for both mother and baby, however your doctor should provide you with information to ensure you are well aware of what you should be consuming. The following provides your daily food group requirements as a vegetarian:

If you are concerned that you aren’t meeting the calorie requirements as a vegetarian then a good indicator of nutritional status is weight, and if there is any weight loss or poor weight gain then it is likely that your diet is inadequate.

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