Many healthy babies have been born to women on herbivorous diets. As with any diet, care should be taken to ensure that nutrient requirements are met and that other healthy lifestyle practices are followed both immediately before and during pregnancy.
1. Take care with your nutrition and health BEFORE you get pregnant.
Women who are planning a pregnancy or at risk of becoming pregnant can optimise their chances of a healthy pregnancy by following a healthy lifestyle and optimising their nutritional health prior to conception. It is especially important that care is taken with nutrition during pregnancy as the health of both mother and baby can suffer as a result of poor nutrition. As pregnancy is not normally detected until some weeks after conception it is important that healthy practices are in place so that the early development of the foetus is not jeopardised.
(a) Eat a nutritious diet - by basing every meal on foods from the Plant Food Groups. Eating the recommended number of serves from each food group will help ensure that you get the nutrients you need. Click here to see the recommended number of serves for you. As good nutrition during pregnancy is very important it is recomended that you seek professional help with planning your diet to make sure you are getting all the nutrients you need. (This is especially important if you do not eat from all the plant food groups and/or have limited food choices for any reason.) You can arrange a consultation with our expert on herbivore nutrition by clicking here and you can obtain tailored advice on planning a healthy herbivorous eating pattern.
- Vitamin B12 is very important as inadequate vitamin B12 can result in problems with the development of the foetus’s brain and nervous system.
- Low folate intake is associated with increased risk of foetal neural tube defects, such as spina bifida. Supplementation with folate (in the form of folic acid) for all women of child-bearing age is now commonly recommended. Foods rich in folate include green vegetables and legumes. There are also folate-fortified foods available such as some breakfast cereals and some breads.
- Iron needs are increased during pregnancy, as blood volume increases. If a woman has low iron levels on becoming pregnant, this can rapidly progress to maternal anaemia. It is a good idea to have your iron levels checked prior to falling pregnant and taking steps to improve them if deficient. Good sources of iron include legumes, green vegetables and breakfast cereals. Having foods containing vitamin C (such as fruit, tomatoes or lightly cooked vegetables) as part of meals increased iron absorption.
- Iodine intake is important during pregnancy as low levels can result in miscarriage, premature labour or brain damage to the foetus, resulting in low IQ and other developmental problems. In many areas of the world (pincluding Europe, Russia, Asia, Australia and Africa) eople are at risk of iodine deficiency due to low levels of iodine in the soil. Iodised salt and foods that have iodine added (e.g. bread in Australia) add to iodine intake, but will not necessarily provide the recommended amount during pregnancy. It is recommended that all women in these areas who are pregnant or planning a pregnancy supplement their diet with iodine.
(b) take a prenatal nutritional supplement from the time a pregnancy is planned. For women of child-bearing age who are not necessarily trying to fall pregnant but could possibly do so, a daily multivitamin supplement is recommended. It is especially importan to pay attenion to your intake of vitamin B12, folate / folic acid and iodine prior to pregnancy. (See below for recommended amouns to supplement with of these and other nutrients.).
Taking a prenatal supplement during pregnancy wil help ensure that requirements for essential nutrients are met. Look for one that is specifically formulated for herbivores/vegans. Suggested amounts of essential nutrients to supplement:
- Vitamin B12 - at least 100 micrograms (mcg) daily
- Iodine - 150 micrograms (mcg) daily
- Iron - 20 milligrams (mg) daily
- Vitamin D - 400 International Units (=10 micrograms) daily
- Folic Acid - 400 micrograms daily
(c) If you are overweight it is recommended that you lose weight prior to considering a pregnancy. Being a healthy weight during pregnancy reduces the risk of complications. See the section on weight loss for information on reaching and maintaining a healthy weight as a herbivore.
(d) Avoid unhealthy lifestyle practices such as smoking and using recreational drugs, as these can have detrimental effects on the developing foetus.
(e) Avoid over-the-counter and prescription medicines, unless cleared with your doctor as being safe during pregnancy.
(f) It is recommended that women who are pregnant or trying to get pregnant should avoid alcohol. Alcohol intake during pregnancy can result in negative consequences for your baby, such as Foetal Alcohhol Syndrome.
(g) It is important for pregnant women to try to avoid contracting infections, as some can harm the unborn baby. For example, salmonella can trigger miscarriages and listeria can cause miscarriage, stillbirth and premature labour. (Although salmonella and listeria infections are more common from foods of animal origin such as chicken and cheese, plant foods can still become infected, so herbivores should not e complacent.) Toxoplasmosis (from cats) can cause miscarriage and birth defects. Good hygiene practices are especially important during pregnancy:
- Always wash hands before preparing food and before eating.
- Keep kitchen surfaces clean.
- Do not let uncooked food contaminate cooked food.
- Wash fruit and vegetables before eating.
- If eating out, eat freshly-prepared food and be wary of salad bars and hot food held at serving temperature.
- Keep pets away from kitchen surfaces.
- Avoid handling cat litter trays or wear rubber gloves if unavoidable.
- Wear rubber gloves when gardening.
- Store food at correct temperatures.
2. Eat a nutritious diet and take a prenatal supplement throughout your pregnancy.
It is important to eat a nutritious diet during pregnancy. This can be achieved by basing your meals on foods from the plant food groups and avoiding foods that are high in fat, salt and sugar. Choosing the recommended number of serves from each food group will help ensure that needs for essential nutrients are met. Avoiding excessive weight gain during pregnancy is important, and as nutrient needs increase more than calorie needs do, it is recommended that pregnant women avoid "empty calorie" foods such as foods high in fat and sugar.
If "morning sickness" or loss of appetite is experienced try: eating smaller meals more frequently, eating cold foods rather than hot foods or drinking nutritious drinks (such as green smoothies or soymilk-based drinks). Some women find that avoiding spicy foods helps prevent nausea, whereas others find that chewing on some fresh ginger or drinking ginger tea helps.
Other nutrients to be aware of duing pregnancy are:
- Calcium - although our bodies become better at absorbing calcium during pregnancy, it is worth paying attention to intake during pregnancy as calcium is used during pregnancy to build the bones of the growing foetus. If there is insufficient calcium in the mother's diet, the calcium required will be drawn from the mother's bones, potentially weakening them. There are not a significant amount of calcium in prenatal supplements or multivitamin tablets, so additional calcium supplementation at the level of 600-1000 mg of calcium per day can be useful. Calcium supplements are best taken at bedtime.
- Omega 3 fatty acids - these are required for brain and eye development so it is prudent to ensure that optimal amounts are consumed during pregnancy. To obtain the essential fatty acid alpha-linoleic acid (ALA) it is recomended that pregnant women consume about a tablespoon of ground flaxseeds per day (or a teaspoon of the oil). Some health experts also recommend that pregnant women also take supplements of the fatty acids DHA and EPA.
3. Have regular health checkups throughout your pregnancy.
Having regular health check-ups throught your pregnancy will help detect and prevent potential problems. Your health practitioner will commonly check measures such as your blood pressure, weight and blood levels of haemoglobin (to detect anaemia) and glucose (to detect gestational diabetes) at intervals throughout your pregnancy.