Nutrition is important at every stage of our lives, more so during pregnancy. It is indeed a time to think about diet and nutrition without making too many dramatic changes from what one is used to normally. It is important for all pregnant women to make a good choice of their meals and consume nutrient rich food, irrespective of whether it is vegetarian or non-vegetarian. It is good to refrain from foods high in fat, sugar or loaded with calories.
Why is nutrition so important during pregnancy?
The nutritional status of the pregnant woman influences pregnancy in a big way. When mothers-to-be consume nutrition deficient food, babies are born with a low birth weight. Low birth weight can lead to further complications and can cause infant deaths and developmental disabilities.
There are many changes that take place in the body of a woman during pregnancy. These changes include preparation for the growth of the fetus and to equip the mother for labor, delivery and lactation. These places a demand on the increased nutritional needs of the mother.
Contrary to abounding myths about the inadequacy of a vegetarian diet during pregnancy, experts have reiterated that a vegetarian diet that comprises nutritious whole foods is indeed a very healthy option for pregnant women.
During pregnancy, only a modest increase in calorie is needed. In fact, during the first trimester, there is no need for additional calories. In the second trimester, an additional 340 calories is required per day and during the third trimester, an additional 450 calories is needed.
An ideal pregnancy diet should contain the following nutrients all through the pregnancy
Folate, or folic acid, is absolutely required for pregnant women and is very crucial in the first weeks of pregnancy. Folate has a major role in the prevention of neural tube defects and also prevents other nutritional deficiencies. Folate is found naturally in leafy greens. Legumes are also rich in folate. Doctors prescribe 600 μg of folate per day during pregnancy. This is because pregnant women may not be able to follow a diet rich in folate consistently. Nowadays, it is easy to source grain products and cereals which are fortified with folate.
For all those who think that a vegetarian diet is deficient in calcium, experts have said that it is simple to get adequate calcium from a vegetarian diet. Extent of calcium absorption is better from plant foods as compared to dairy products.
Pregnant women who are vegetarians must increase their intake of the following foods to easily meet their needs of calcium. Dark green leafy vegetables, tofu and soybeans, bok choy, figs, broccoli, beans, sesame seeds, sunflower seeds and tahini are good sources of calcium. Make sure you have calcium-fortified cereals and juices.
It is quite easy for pregnant women on a vegetarian diet to meet their daily requirements of protein. The sources of protein in a vegetarian diet include nuts, seeds, legumes, beans, soy products, vegetables and whole grains. The protein requirement per day, especially during the second and third trimester should ideally be 71 g/day.
Essential fatty acids
Alpha-linolenic acid (ALA) is an essential fatty acid which is an integral part of a pregnant woman’s diet. ALA, which is found in many vegetarian foods gets converted into omega-3 fatty acids in the body. ALA is found in abundance in Flaxseed, soybeans, walnuts, canola. Omega-3 fatty acids is also found in legumes, grains, nuts, seeds, green leafy vegetables, and also abundantly found in some vegetable oils such as soybean, corn, safflower, sunflower and sesame.
When a woman is pregnant, iron is required to aid the development of the placenta and the fetus. Iron also helps enhance blood volume, therefore the requirement of iron increases during pregnancy. Iron needs may be more for those on a vegetarian diet. This is because the absorption of iron from non- animal sources may not be as effective as a non vegetarian diet.
It may be difficult for pregnant women to meet their daily requirements of iron from diet alone, iron supplements are prescribed to pregnant women. Even though iron supplements are prescribed, in addition to taking these supplements, pregnant women on a vegetarian diet should include iron-rich plant foods in their daily diet. Legumes, enriched grains, dried fruit, seeds, nuts and dark green vegetables are rich in iron content. Further, to enhance the absorption of iron from vegetarian foods, one must consume food rich in vitamin-C.
During pregnancy, women need more zinc than normal. While a normal woman may need about 8mg/day, during pregnancy the requirement of zinc goes up to 11 mg/day especially for those on a vegetarian diet. Also, one needs to remember that zinc absorption is much less from plant based foods, so those on a vegan diet may need to consume prenatal vitamins containing zinc. Nuts, legumes, cereals, whole grains are all sources of zinc. To enhance the absorption of zinc from plant based foods, it is good to consume sprouted beans, seeds or grains, and legumes which are soaked and cooked.
During pregnancy, there is a slight increase in the daily dosage of Vitamin B12. The daily dosage should ideally be 2.6 μg/day. It is not difficult to find vegetarian sources of Vitamin B12 – it can be found in nondairy milk, meat substitutes, and fortified cereals. Doctors also prescribe a vitamin B 12 supplement or a prenatal vitamin containing B12 to ensure pregnant women get the required amount of the vitamin
Vitamin D is a vital vitamin during pregnancy and the expectant mother must ensure she gets adequate amounts of the vitamin per day, (5 μg per day). Vitamin D is crucial for both the mother and the baby.
Exposure to sunlight is for just 10 minutes per day is adequate for Vitamin D to be made in the body. It is not possible to find adequate Vitamin D in any of the diets, unless one goes for fortified foods. These days it is easy to find several labels of ready-to-eat cereals and nondairy milks which are fortified with Vitamin D. Fortified food is good to be consumed by pregnant women who do not have adequate exposure to the sun. There is another option to also consume prenatal vitamins, which contain sufficient amounts of Vitamin D.
Trimester–wise vegetarian diet plan for pregnant women
1st TRIMESTER: You are in your first trimester and are physically and mentally adjusting to the idea of a new life growing inside you. Many women suffer from morning sickness and are unable to eat what they normally do in the pre- pregnancy time. Fortunately, during the first trimester, no extra calories are needed!
But, do not to throw caution to the winds. The first few weeks of gestation are very crucial as the baby’s brain, skull and spine are developing at this stage. During this time, there is a requirement for adequate amount of folic acid or folate, which helps in the normal development of the baby’s skull, brain and spinal cord. Folate helps in protecting the growing baby from neural tube defects such as spina bifida.
Folic acid is available in abundance in dark green leafy vegetables, which includes okra, spring greens, kale, cabbage, spinach and Brussels’ sprouts. Pulses like beans, chick peas, and lentils also have folic acid. Other vegetarian options for folic acid include legumes, nuts, baked potatoes, corn, oranges, asparagus and fresh peas. Experts also advise pregnant women to consume foods fortified with folic acid like whole grain breads, breakfast cereals and bran flakes. Brown rice also contains folic acid. In addition, pregnant women must consume 600 μg of Folic acid per day. Folic acid through diet and supplements is required to protect against infections, anaemia and help the brain development of the growing fetus. Include Vitamin C in the daily diet by having a fruit or vegetable rich in this vitamin as it aids the absorption of iron.
Expectant mothers in the first trimester must have adequate amounts of calcium which is required for baby’s bones and teeth. Good food sources of calcium are low fat cheeses, yogurt, skimmed milk, bread, oranges, dried fruits, almonds, green leafy vegetables, breakfast cereals and apricots.
It is also good to get some sun, especially during the early morning for the skin and natural vitamin D which is formed after exposure to the sun. Asparagus and fortified margarines are also good to have as they contain Vitamin D which aids the absorption of calcium.
In the first trimester, many women complain of nausea. It is good to keep away from strong odours which may trigger the uncomfortable feeling. It is advisable to consume small meals and eat more frequently. Avoid drinking fluid along with meals. You could do so between meals.
2nd TRIMESTER: In the second trimester, pregnant women need to increase their calorie intake by an additional 340 calories per day.
During this time apart, in addition to the supplements and diet of the first trimester, it is important to have a diet rich in Vitamin C. During this period Vitamin C is required to form collagen, which is an important component of tendons, bones, skin and cartilage. It is good to consume fruits and vegetables, which are rich in Vitamin C.
Vitamin C is found in abundance in citrus fruits such as lemons, oranges and in other fruits such as grapes, berries, kiwi, pineapple and guavas. Vegetables such as bell peppers, spinach, Brussels’ sprouts, pak choy and broccoli are also rich in Vitamin C. Fruit juices made from oranges, grapes and guavas also provide Vitamin C. Prenatal vitamin supplements containing Vitamin C may also be good to consume in addition to dietary sources of the nutrient.
Omega-3 (DHA) is also needed for the development of the nervous system and the brain. It also contributes to the development of the immune system. Omega-3 fatty acids is also found in legumes, grains, nuts, seeds, green leafy vegetables, and also abundantly found in some vegetable oils such as soybean, corn, safflower, sunflower and sesame.
Mothers-to-be also need to consume foods rich in magnesium in the second trimester. This is because magnesium works to strengthen the bones and also alleviate cramps in the expectant mother. Vegetarian sources of magnesium include oatmeal, bran flakes, wheat bran, beans, legumes, cashews, nuts, soybeans, almonds, sunflower seeds, and pumpkin seeds. Fruits such as raisins, avocado and banana are also rich in magnesium.
- During the second trimester you must consume 5 portions of vegetables and fruits daily
- Drink more water
- Stay active by walking for at least 30 minutes, 4-5 days a week
- Include more whole grain products in your diet
3rd TRIMESTER: The third trimester is an exciting time as mothers to be are now closer to the day when they would be holding their bundle of joy. As much as nutrition is important in the first and second trimester, in the third trimester too women need to follow the nutrition plan similar to the previous two trimesters. The only change is to consume an additional 450 calories a day to meet the needs of the baby.
Keep the guidelines of diet as suggested for the first and second trimester.
Suggestions for the additional calories
- Have a cup of low fat milk or soy milk with fruits – fruit smoothie
- Two jacket potatoes with 25grams of low fat cheese.
- Have a fresh fruit
- A teaspoon or two of low fat cheese spread on 3 slices of wholemeal toast
- 1 whole wheat muffin with 1tsp of low fat cheese.
- A bowl of raw vegetables
- Increase the amount of fluids and dietary fiber in the diet to prevent constipation.
Vegan diets are loaded with nutrition and are adequate to meet the growing needs of the mother and fetus during pregnancy. One doesn’t need to change to a non-vegetarian diet just because of pregnancy. Plant based diets do work their magic to meet both the mother’s and baby’s requirements. With a structured diet plan, it is possible to achieve all the nutritional needs of pregnancy.