Vegetarian and vegan diets are gaining popularity, with more people opting for a plant-based lifestyle. Plant foods provide us with a vast array of nutrients essential for our health, but when we restrict any food group careful planning is needed to prevent nutritional deficiencies. This is particularly important during pre-conception, pregnancy and breastfeeding when nutrient demands on the body increase. The key to healthy conception, pregnancy and breastfeeding is ensuring you have sufficient nutrients for you and your growing baby.
Vegan and vegetarian mothers-to-be should look at optimizing their levels of iron, B12, choline, protein, calcium and essential fatty acids through diet and possibly also through supplementation.
Iron and Vitamin B12
B12 is essential for conception, red blood cell formation and your baby’s neurological development. Iron requirements increase substantially during pregnancy, as iron is needed to carry oxygen around your body and to the baby.
A deficiency of iron and B12 leads to anaemia, which increases the risk of your baby being born prematurely or at low birth weight. Anaemia can also leave you feeling lethargic, dizzy and absentminded.
Iron is found in dark green leafy vegetables, whole grains, legumes, nuts, seeds and blackstrap molasses, however, plant-based iron, known as non-haem iron, is not as easily absorbed by our body as haem iron which is obtained from meat and animal products. Eating vitamin c rich foods with your vegan sources of iron will help increase absorption.
Vitamin B12 is only found naturally in meat, eggs and dairy products, placing vegans and vegetarians at risk of deficiency, therefore supplementation is highly recommended.
Choline supports placenta development and brain function for both you and your baby, in addition to enhancing your baby’s neurological development throughout infancy. Choline deficiency has been associated with miscarriage, neural tube defects in children and increased risk of learning disorders.
Again, choline is mostly found in animal products. It is, however, also found in Brussels sprouts, broccoli, cauliflower, asparagus and spinach, but, at much lower levels. A vegan choline supplement may be necessary to ensure your choline levels remain adequate throughout pre-conception, pregnancy and breastfeeding.
Protein is composed of smaller molecules known as amino acids, which are fundamental to the growth and development of your baby. Of the 21 amino acids, 9 are essential, meaning that our bodies cannot produce them; they must come from our food. Insufficient protein intake has been linked to reduced gestation length, low birth weight, and increased likelihood of your baby developing impaired immune function.
Plant-based protein is found in many foods, including tofu, tempeh, nuts and legumes. Supplementation with a good quality vegan protein, such as pea protein powder, can help be useful during pregnancy to reduce your risk of deficiency.
Calcium is abundant in plant sources such as leafy green vegetables, tofu, almonds, chia and sesame seeds. Non-dairy forms of calcium are better absorbed and, provided you eat a good variety of fresh whole foods, you can be confident of attaining adequate calcium for you and your baby.
Essential Fatty Acids (EFAs)
Omega-3 EFAs are required to support the brain and eye development of your growing baby and benefit your brain health and cognition. Deficiency is linked with an increased risk of post-natal depression for mothers, pre-term labour and delivery, low birth weight and pre-eclampsia.
EFAs must be supplied through diet. Food sources of EFAs include fish, nuts, seeds and avocado, however, plant-based diets are known to provide lower levels of key EFAs, increasing the risk of deficiency.
Algal oil, sea buckthorn, evening primrose oil, hemp seed oil, chai seed oil, and flaxseed oil are excellent plant-derived sources of EFAs that will nourish you and your growing baby.
A well-balanced diet is important anytime, but meeting your nutrient requirements during pre-conception, pregnancy and breastfeeding is essential for your health and your baby’s health. Eating a well-balanced diet with a variety of foods and bridging any nutritional gaps with supplementation will provide you with key nutrients that prevent deficiencies.
If you have any questions or concerns book an appointment for a more comprehensive review of your nutritional requirements.