“Congratulations! You have a healthy baby boy!” or “You have a healthy baby girl!”
These are the words every new parent wants to hear when they welcome their bundle of joy into the world. They make sure the mother and developing baby get all the care during the 9-month pregnancy – doctor’s visits, extra vitamins, rest, and everything from top to bottom from the good old food pyramid.
To the vegetarian mother-to-be, it means taking out the meat and possibly the fish, chicken, eggs, and even, gasp!, milk! Can this even be good for the baby?
Well, according to a review that summarized the studies on vegan diets and pregnancy, vegan diets have no detrimental effect on the baby as long as all the important nutrients and trace elements are covered.
To help you understand, we need to see what are the most important nutrients and the foods that make for a healthy baby. In order of importance, we have:
|Nutrient||Role||Daily Requirement||Foods that have it|
|Needed early on for the development of the neural tube of brain and spinal column||600 mcg||Legumes (beans), leafy greens, asparagus, oranges, strawberries, avocado|
|Iron||Helps form hemoglobin, which carries oxygen in the blood||27 mg||Beef, poultry, pork, seafood, enriched grains, blackstrap molasses, legumes|
|Calcium||Builds bone; helps maintain healthy blood pressure||1000 mg||Milk, yogurt, cheese, fortified foods, green leafy vegetables|
|Zinc||For mother’s immune system and cell growth of baby||11 mg||Beef, poultry, pork, seafood, enriched grains, nuts, seeds, peas, legumes|
|Choline||Assists in the development of baby’s nervous system, brain, and neural tube||450 mg||Egg yolk, beef, soy, avocado|
|Vit D||Helps build bone and protect the immune system||600 IU||Fortified foods, fish, supplements|
|Omega-3 fatty acids (DHA, EPA)||Important for healthy brain (DHA) and beneficial for structural cells (EPA)||1000 mg||Fatty fish, algae, fortified foods, enriched eggs, supplements|
|Fiber||Helps aid digestion and prevents constipation||28 g||Whole grains, legumes, fruits, vegetables, dairy, nuts, seeds|
|Protein||Provides the amino acids that make up the building blocks of cells||71 g||Beef, poultry, pork, seafood, eggs, dairy, legumes, nuts, seeds|
Then let’s take a look at the different kinds of vegetarians.
|Vegan||Fruits, vegetables, grains, nuts, seeds||All types of meat, eggs, dairy products|
|Lacto-vegetarian||Everything the vegan eats plus milk products||All types of meat, eggs|
|Lacto-ovo-vegetarian||Everything the above two types eat plus eggs||All types of meat
|Pescatarian||Everything the above three types eat plus fish high in omega-3||Meat and poultry|
Looking at the two tables, it appears that the vegans, lacto-vegans, and lacto-ovo vegans will have a problem when it comes to giving the complete essential nutrients for a healthy baby.
Stopping Up the Gaps
Vegetarians already have folic acid covered since the best sources are fruits and vegetables. Folic = foliage, get it? But for the rest of the important nutrients, you can easily replace the meat with the following:
- Iron – fortified breakfast cereals, green vegetables, blackstrap molasses, legumes, fortified bread
(Take note: avoid tea and coffee with your meals because they contain tannins and polyphenols that make it harder for iron to be absorbed in the body. Instead, eat broccoli or drink juices high in Vitamin C to help your body absorb iron. Since iron requirements increase during pregnancy, get iron supplements to meet the increasing demand.
- Calcium – get at least three portions of dairy foods a day
- Milk on breakfast cereal
- Yogurt with lunch
- Matchbox-sized cheese with dinner
For vegans who don’t take dairy:
– sesame seeds, nuts, dried fruit
– tofu and fortified soy products like soy milk and yogurt
(Note: it’s harder for your body to absorb calcium from these sources so better take calcium supplements. Ask your doctor which is best for you)
- Protein – Protein requirements also increase as the baby gets bigger. Vegetarian protein sources are whole grains, beans, soy products, vegetables, nuts, and seeds.
- Omega-3 – most vegan foods do not contain this. Instead, you may opt for a vegetarian microalgae supplement. Walnuts and flax seeds are the nearest you can get in the plant department.
- Vitamin B12, B2, and iodine – usually from eggs and dairy products. For vegans, you should get these from fortified foods found in yeast extract, soya milk, breakfast cereals, some rice and oat milk drinks.
- Vitamin D – Adequate amounts of vitamin D can be obtained through exposure to the sun and in fortified milk, eggs, and fish. Vegans should receive 10 to 15 minutes of direct sunlight to the hands, face, or arms three times per week, or take a supplement as prescribed by your doctor.
- Choline – soya milk, tofu, quinoa, and broccoli contain rich amounts of choline for the baby’s brain development
Pregnant women are especially at risk on food safety issues, including vegetarians. Fresh produce, grains, and dairy can pose risks.
Take the following precautions for these food groups:
- Produce — Wash all fruits and vegetables before cutting them. Do not consume unpasteurized juices (fruit or vegetable) or raw bean, alfalfa, or clover sprouts.
- Grains — Do not eat raw grains or raw sprouted grains.
- Protein foods — Do not eat raw or undercooked eggs, tofu, miso, and tempeh products (unless cooked to more than 140 degrees in a dish), or raw nuts.
- Dairy — Do not consume unpasteurized milk or cheeses made from unpasteurized milk (unless cooked to more than 140 degrees), unrefrigerated dairy desserts/cream, or cheese-filled pastries and pies.
- Beverages — Do not consume mate tea or sun tea (sun-brewed), or iced tea brewed with warm or cold water.
- Miscellaneous — Do not consume raw or unpasteurized honey, raw yeast, raw cookie dough/cake batter, any outdated or moldy foods, or salad dressings made with raw egg.
Here’s a great and easy-to-follow menu for vegetarian mommies-to-be from “Pregnancy Cooking and Nutrition for Dummies.”
- 1 cup ready-to-eat cereal topped with 1/4 cup raisins and 1 cup fortified soymilk
- 2 slices whole-wheat toast with 2 tablespoons almond butter
- 3/4 cup calcium-fortified fruit juice
- Sandwich with 1/2 cup baked tofu, 2 slices whole-grain bread, and lettuce
- 2 cups tossed salad with herbs and lemon juice
- 1 piece fruit
- 1 cup red beans and 1/2 cup rice
- 1/2 cup cooked broccoli with nutritional yeast
- 1 cup spinach salad
- 1 cup fortified soymilk
- 2 tablespoons nuts
- 1 cup mixed fruit
- 4 whole-wheat crackers
*Be sure to include a reliable source of vitamin B12, such as many prenatal vitamins or fortified nondairy milk or cereal.