Is it safe to follow a vegetarian diet while pregnant? An expert advises

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A balanced vegetarian diet can provide all the nutrients you need for a healthy pregnancy. (Photo: Pixabay)
A balanced vegetarian diet can provide all the nutrients you need for a healthy pregnancy. (Photo: Pixabay)

Changing your diet is one of the first things women are advised to do when they learn they're expecting. 

But what are the rules when you're a vegetarian? 

One reader asked: 

"I'm a healthy pregnant vegetarian. I'm a bit worried about my diet as it relates to my baby though. I know that even meat-eating pregnant women often struggle with iron shortages. What can I do to ensure I get enough iron for me and my baby? I’m also not that big on dairy, so I’m worried about calcium, too". 

Lindsay Archibald-Durham, registered dietitian, answers:

A balanced vegetarian diet can provide all the nutrients you need for a healthy pregnancy, provided you pay close attention to getting enough protein, iron, vitamin B12, calcium and vitamin D.

Iron needs increase during pregnancy to aid in the development of the foetus and placenta and to maintain increased maternal blood volume.

Iron needs may be greater for those on a vegetarian diet because of less efficient absorption of iron from non-animal sources.

Iron supplements (or prenatal vitamins containing iron) are often prescribed for women on any kind of diet, as it is difficult for any woman to meet increased needs through diet alone.

ALSO READ Quick fixes for six common pregnancy aches and pains 

Vegetarian women should include iron-rich plant foods daily, in addition to taking their prescribed vitamins or supplements.

Iron supplements should not be taken at the same time as tea, coffee, dairy products or calcium supplements as these foods inhibit the absorption of iron.

Vegetarian sources of iron include whole grains and fortified cereals, legumes, nuts, seeds, dark green vegetables, dried fruit, eggs and blackstrap molasses.

Including vitamin C-rich foods or drinks such as citrus, peppers or sweet potato at meals can increase the absorption of iron.

Vitamin B12 is found in fortified foods, such as fortified cereals, meat substitutes, non-dairy milk, and nutritional yeast such as Marmite.

Just as it was before pregnancy, getting enough calcium on a vegetarian diet is easy. Calcium absorption from plant foods is often superior to that of dairy products.

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Good non-dairy sources of calcium include tofu and soybeans, dark green leafy vegetables, broccoli, pulses and baked beans, dried apricots and figs, sunflower seeds, sesame seeds and tahini, almond butter, calcium-fortified non-dairy milk, bread and calcium-fortified cereals and juices.

If these foods are included in the diet every day, calcium needs are easily met. Your body will require sufficient vitamin D to absorb and use calcium.

Therefore, it’s important to both mother and baby to ensure adequate intake. Vitamin D is made in the body as a result of exposure to sunlight.

This nutrient is poorly supplied in all diets unless people use foods that are fortified with it, such as ready-to-eat cereals and non-dairy kinds of milk.

Pregnant women who don’t regularly spend time in the sun or have darker skin will want to be sure to include fortified foods in their diet. Many prenatal vitamins contain adequate amounts of vitamin D as well.

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