Plant-Based Eating and Pregnancy – 4 Steps to a Healthy Bub
A plant-based diet is a diet based on foods derived from plants (e.g. fruit, vegetables, nuts, wholegrains, legumes) and generally contains little, if any animal products. Recent research has highlighted the health benefits of a plant-based diet, including its link with reducing risk of chronic disease, diabetes and some cancers. However there can potentially be some nutritional and health risks with following this eating pattern during pregnancy.
Whether you follow a vegetarian-based diet (which may include small amounts of dairy or eggs) or a vegan diet completely free of any animal products, your choices of what to eat and drink during pregnancy can affect the growth and health of your baby for many years to come. If you are pregnant and considering a plant-based diet or have been following this dietary pattern for a while, consider the following tips for a well planned plant-based diet to support a healthy pregnancy.
1) Optimise your nutritional supplement regimen
Vitamin and mineral supplements can be expensive and in many cases unnecessary. It is important that any supplements you are taking are meeting your nutritional needs by filling any specific gaps in your diet and are not providing excessive amounts of nutrients that you are already getting from your diet. This is particularly important in the case of fat-soluble vitamins (e.g. vitamin A or vitamin E) which can be build-up in the body and can be harmful to both mum and baby, particularly if taken in high doses.
A good place to start is to see your GP or Medical Practitioner for a blood test to get an idea of your current levels. This is also a good opportunity for you to let your GP know about any supplements you may be planning to take or may already be taking.
Evidence-based guidelines recommend women take 400-500 micrograms of folic acid daily during the first 3 months of pregnancy and 150 micrograms of iodine per day throughout the entire pregnancy. There may also be other nutrients at risk with a vegetarian or vegan diet and depending on dietary restrictions, a supplement may be the best way to ensure adequate levels are reached. An Accredited Practising Dietitian with experience in pregnancy nutrition can assist by undertaking a thorough dietary assessment to identify any current or potential nutritional gaps and provide recommendations on diet changes or supplementation (this may vary depending on your stage of pregnancy and the quality of your diet).
2) Up your iron intake
Throughout pregnancy a woman’s blood supply needs to increase by about 50% and iron requirements can triple. This increased iron is needed to carry oxygen in the blood and to grow an additional blood circulation system. These increased iron requirements can be very difficult to achieve with a vegan diet, and in some cases an iron supplement may be recommended.
To increase your iron intake, load up on good sources of dietary iron which include legumes (e.g. beans, peas, lentils) dark green vegetables, dried fruits, nuts, fortified soy milk, breakfast cereals and wholemeal breads. Aim to include food or drink sources high in vitamin C with your iron-rich meals (e.g. citrus fruits/juices, strawberries, kiwi fruit, broccoli, tomatoes) and avoid drinking tea and coffee with meals (as the tannins in tea and coffee can reduce the absorption of iron).
3) Optimise your dairy alternatives
Dairy products are generally the best dietary source of calcium and many other bone-building minerals. An adequate intake of calcium during pregnancy is important for growth of baby’s skeleton and to maintain mum’s normal bone mass. Additionally vitamin B12 (found in dairy foods) is important for forming red blood cells and a healthy nervous system. As it is found in the highest amounts in animal foods, intake will be limited in women reducing their intake of dairy foods or those following a vegan diet.
Ensure your milk and dairy alternatives contain adequate amounts of calcium and vitamin B12. Generally a good quality soy milk fortified with calcium, vitamin D and vitamin B12 is an appropriate cow’s milk alternative. A good amount of vitamin B12 can be consumed by having at least two serves of soy milk fortified with vitamin B12 daily.
4) Last but not least…see an Accredited Practising Dietitian
A Dietitian specialising in pregnancy nutrition can help with personalising your nutrition needs and providing support with preparing for a successful pregnancy. Guidance and recommendations can also be provided on healthy weight gain throughout pregnancy. Optimal weight gain varies between individual women based on their pre-pregnancy weight and stage of pregnancy and it is important that weight gain or maintenance is managed with careful consideration to dietary preferences to ensure nutritional requirements are being met.
Well2’s Accredited Practising Dietitian, Sophie Cheesman has special interests in nutrition for pregnancy, fertility, polycystic ovary syndrome and weight management.
Read more about Sophie here
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