Many vegetarians are used to fielding concerns about their diet. They answerqueries with anything from a short, humorous response to a detailed lecture.However, many vegetarian women find that when they become pregnant, thequestions become more persistent. Well-meaning friends and family may openlyexpress doubts about the safety of a meat-free diet. “How do you get enoughprotein? Don’t you need meat for your baby to be healthy?” In the case ofvegans, those who eat no animal products including eggs or dairy, theopposition increases. Here are some facts about the vital nutrients in yourdiet to ease their minds and yours regarding the safety of vegetarian dietsduring pregnancy.
How many vegetarians do you know who started eating fish during pregnancyjust to meet their protein needs? It is true that the need for proteinincreases during pregnancy, but only by about 20 percent. The fact is mostAmerican women, including vegetarians, eat enough protein on an average dayto meet the needs of a pregnant woman. Excess protein is simply stored inthe body as fat.
A woman’s body needs about 300 extra calories per day to grow a healthybaby. If you meet your caloric needs by eating a wide variety of foods,including whole grains, soy foods (soymilk, tofu, tempeh), legumes, nuts,nut butters, seeds, fruits and vegetables, you will meet your protein needsduring pregnancy. And contrary to the old teachings, vegetarians need notcombine foods during each meal to get complete proteins. A balanced andvaried diet will take care of that.
Omega-3 fatty acids
You may also have heard that you should at least eat fish for omega-3 fattyacids. These essential fats play an important role in the development of theretina and brain and maintenance of the central nervous system. While it istrue that fish oil is a rich source, it is certainly not the only one!Omega-3 fatty acids are also available from ground flax seeds (added tobaked goods or smoothies), flax seed oil, walnuts, walnut oil, canola oil,soy products, soybean oil, hempseed oil, and wheat germ. There is some newresearch to suggest that perhaps an omega-3 supplement is in order for allvegetarians, regardless of whether you eat the foods listed above, so youmay consider buying one from a vegan retailer.
Further evidence shows that pesticide and mercury consumption from eatingcertain types of fish may be unsafe during pregnancy. Reed Mangels, Ph.D.,R.D. of the Vegetarian Resource Group warns of the dangers:
“Several studies have found markedly higher levels of pesticides in breastmilk of women who eat meat and fish, especially fatty fish. We don’t reallyknow what effect these pesticides have on pregnancy. The FDA has issued anadvisory calling for pregnant women to avoid shark, swordfish, kingmackerel, and tilefish.”
You will probably be cautioned to make sure you get four full glasses of milk per day to meet your calcium needs. Most people don’t even realize thatthere are other good sources of calcium besides milk.
“When a pregnant American woman thinks about adding calcium to her body, sheautomatically thinks she needs to drink more milk. Yet, after they areweaned from their mothers, billions of women worldwide consume no milk andproduce perfectly healthy and strong children,” says Dr. John McDougall,author of The McDougall Program for Women.
Good sources of non-dairy calcium include broccoli, almonds, tahini (sesameseed paste used in sauces and dips), sesame seeds, kale, sea vegetables,fortified orange juice, calcium-processed tofu, fortified soy and rice milk.A woman’s body actually absorbs and retains calcium more efficiently duringpregnancy.
Related to calcium—and just as important—is Vitamin D. It is essential forabsorption of calcium and for the formation of your baby’s bones in utero.Your body will make all the Vitamin D that you need with adequate sunexposure (one hour, three to four times per week), but since your needsduring pregnancy double, it’s safer to make sure that you have a dietarysource of this nutrient. Vegetarian sources include egg yolks, fortifieddairy products, and many soy and rice milks.
B-12 is abundant in meat, eggs, and dairy products. Ovo-lacto vegetariansgenerally need not worry about their intake of this vitamin. Vegans can makesure to get it by consuming fortified foods such as nutritional yeast(delicious sprinkled on popcorn), soymilk, meat analogs (vegetarian meatsubstitutes), or breakfast cereals. There is some evidence that suggeststhat a mother’s store of B-12 may not be available to the fetus. Therefore,it is critical that your diet contain an adequate amount of this nutrient.
“Sea vegetables, tempeh, and other foods are not reliable sources of vitaminB-12,” warns Mangels. “To be sure the baby gets vitamin B-12, it isimportant to use a reliable source daily rather than relying on storedvitamin B-12.”
A woman’s need for iron during pregnancy increases. The baby’s blood isformed, and the mother’s blood volume rises to guarantee an adequate oxygensupply to her growing child. Many women, regardless of diet, experienceanemia during pregnancy.
“Whether or not iron supplements are used, it is important to stress theinclusion of iron-rich foods in the diets of all pregnant women,” saysMangels.
These include green leafy vegetables, beans and legumes, dried fruits,blackstrap molasses, bran flakes, sea vegetables, nuts and seeds. Dr.McDougall also recommends avoiding excess consumption of milk products, tea,and coffee, all of which inhibit iron absorption. Cooking food in cast ironskillets—especially high-acid foods like tomatoes—can increase the ironcontent of foods. Some doctors recommend that their pregnant patients take adaily iron supplement in the second and third trimesters. Each woman shoulddiscuss her diet in detail with her own healthcare provider to determine ifan iron supplement is necessary.
According to The McDougall Program for Women, folate, or folic acid,deficiency is the most frequently encountered vitamin deficiency in the U.S.Adequate consumption of folate is essential, particularly in the first fewweeks of pregnancy when women don’t usually know they are pregnant. It helpsto prevent many birth defects, including spina bifida and anencephaly. Forthis reason, folate is now added to many commercial baked goods and flours.Vegetarian diets are often high in folate, but experts recommend 600 ug perday during pregnancy from the following dietary sources and/or folatesupplements: dark leafy greens, whole grains, orange juice, baked goods madewith enriched flour, asparagus, broccoli, cauliflower, green beans, andfortified cereals.
Mangels recommends that the use of prenatal vitamins be evaluated on acase-by-case basis. More important is eating a widely varied, plant-baseddiet in order to confidently meet dietary needs during pregnancy.
“Certainly there is little or no risk associated with use of a standardprenatal vitamin, and it may provide extra “insurance” for days when a womanis too queasy or too busy to eat properly. However, a vitamin will notprovide calories and protein, also very important in pregnancy, and soshould not be relied on to take the place of a healthy diet.”
Written by: Melanie Wilso
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