How to balance pregnancy and vegetarianism

How can you safely get through a pregnancy as a vegetarian?

The diet of the ovo-lacto-vegetarian pregnant woman must be adapted so the risks of deficiency are reduced to a minimum. Even if you have only removed meat from your diet, the risk remains. During pregnancy, your dietary needs are increased so you may be forced to taking supplements, but only under the supervision of your doctor or your midwife. Before getting to that stage, women should focus on nutrient-rich foods that will allow them to have a balanced diet.

A study conducted in 2016 showed that newborns of vegetarian women are generally healthy and have a normal weight, provided the mothers have taken special care to avoid deficiencies *.

Which foods should we favour?

Iron and iodine

What’s the point ?

Iron allows the transport of oxygen through blood to the mother’s tissues and her foetus. For its part, iodine avoids cretinism, a disease that was common in some areas far from the sea. Found mainly in fish, (hence the expression, “cretin from the Alps” where locals only consumed a small amount of fish), cretinism is manifested by mental retardation and an abnormal physical development.

Where can you find it?

Mixed Herbs (parsley, thyme, oregano), basil, mint, rosemary and laurel are all rich in iron. But given the small amount of herbs we eat, this is not enough to meet our needs. To compensate, we should eat pulses (lentils, chickpeas, and beans), cocoa dark chocolate, ginger and fennel.

It’s also important to avoid drinking tea during meals as theine (caffeine found in tea) prevents the proper absorption of vegetable iron.

On the contrary, to promote its absorption, you should accompany it with vitamin C by making, for example, a salad of lentils with citrus fruit!

For iodine, use iodised table salt. This should be specified on the label. You will also find it in dairy products (yogurt, milk, cheese) and eggs.

Some foods even bring you both, such as sea lettuce, nori seaweed (around maki), spirulina and wakame.

Fill up on vitamin C

What’s the point?

For pregnant women, vitamin C is extremely useful to improve the performance of the placenta. It also allows better absorption of non-heme iron (plant iron) which isn’t as well assimilated as the heme iron (animal iron).

Where can you find it?

Vitamin C is found in citrus fruits (which you can be eaten as a dessert or as a juice) and in most other fruits and vegetables.

Being sensitive to heat, Vitamin C is found in greater quantities in raw fruits and vegetables (peppers, red fruits). You can get more information on vitamin C.

Calcium and vitamin D

What’s the point ?

Vitamin D helps the fixation of calcium in the bones, therefore improving the formation of the foetus’s skeleton.

Where to find them?

Dairy products are the best source of a calcium which is better absorbed than plant calcium (fruits and vegetables). You’ll get a lot of it in hard pressed cheese (allowed during pregnancy) such as Parmesan, Gruyere, Emmental, Comté (to be consumed without the rind) and fromage blanc. However, during pregnancy certain cheeses should definitely be avoided because of the risk of infection with listeria: soft-skinned cheeses with a surface mould (Caprice des Dieux, Brie, Camembert), washed cheeses (Livarot, Munster, Mont d’Or), as well as pre-grated cheeses.

A maximum of vitamin B12

What’s the point ?

Vitamin B12 participates in the formation of red blood cells and cell renewal, which allows for the growth of the foetus. It also allows for the activation of folic acid (vitamin B9).

Where can you find them?

This vitamin is essential for vegans because it can only be found in products (meat, milk and derivatives). It is much less common to recommended it to vegetarians. Yet roughly 10% of vegetarians are deficient in B12 **, therefore, supplementation should be considered with the aid of local doctor. Before anything else, you should think about eating 3 to 4 dairy products every day. Beware of products enriched in B12 which are often based on soy. According to ANSES, you should limit your intake to one soy product per day during pregnancy

The essential vitamin B9, the most important during pregnancy

What’s the point?

Vitamin B9 (folic acid) must be consumed in sufficient quantities before and during pregnancy to reduce the risk of neural tube defects in the newborn (spina bifida). It also greatly reduces the risk of a premature birth and producing an underweight baby ***.

Where can you find it?

You’ll find plenty of B9 in yeast flakes, chickpeas (and chickpea flour), beans, spinach, lentils, quinoa, lamb’s salad, walnuts and melon, and also in many fruits and vegetables.

Omega 3 intake

What’s the point ?

Omega 3 fatty acids not only play an important role in development of the nervous system, brain and retina in the foetus, but they also help maintain their proper functioning in adults.

Where to find them?

You can ingest Omega 3 by eating vegetables such as flax and nuts every day, in oil, seeds, rapeseed oil, wheat germ and chia seeds.

In short, eating a balanced diet and avoiding deficiencies is effectively eating everything (of course you should focus on unprocessed products by cooking them yourself). We’ve made it easy for you by designing recipes adapted to vegetarians,  and for pregnant women.

Remember, to make sure a doctor or midwife follows your progress for the duration of your pregnancy so that it goes as well as possible.

*Brzezińska,M., Kucharska, A., Sińska, B. (2016). Vegetarian diets in the nutrition of pregnant and breastfeeding women. Polski Merkuriusz Lekarski, 40(238):264-8

** Pawlak, R., Lester, S. E., & Babatunde, T. (2014). The prevalence of cobalamin deficiency among vegetarians assessed by serum vitamin B12: a review of literature. European Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 68(5), 541–548. doi:10.1038/ejcn.2014.46

*** Papadopoulou E, Stratakis N, Roumeliotaki T, Sarri K, Merlo DF, Kogevinas M, Chatzi L., (2012). The effect of high doses of folic acid and iron supplementation in early-to-mid pregnancy on prematurity and fetal growth retardation: the mother-child cohort study in Crete, Greece (Rhea study). European Journal of Nutrition.

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