Vegetarian/ Vegan Diets
The majority of vegetarians (no meat) and vegans (nothing of animal origin) are committed to the way they have chosen to eat and their preferred diet will continue whilst they try to conceive and throughout pregnancy & lactation.
The foundations of a healthy life are laid before conception, so when you decide to have a baby, whatever your diet preferences are, it is a good time to assess the way you eat, if your choice is to eat a totally plant based diet (vegan) there are a number of considerations to ensure that optimum nutrient requirements for conception and a healthy pregnancy are met.
Key considerations on a plant based diet
1. Optimise your diet to contain sufficient B-12
Vitamin B-12 is necessary for the production of red blood cells, neurological function, DNA synthesis, and to prevent anaemia. Found almost exclusively in animal products, it is impossible to get enough B-12 on a vegan diet without supplementation. Vitamin B-12 deficiency may go undetected in vegans because the vegan diet is rich in folate, which may mask deficiency in vitamin B-12 until severe problems occur.
There are a variety of claims that certain plant foods contain B-12 including spirulina, nori, chlorella, tempeh and barley grass. Most studies, however, have shown them to be inadequate to raise blood levels of B-12.
B-12 can be harvested from bacteria and used in fortified foods and supplements, for vegans to ensure optimum levels of vitamin B-12 supplementation is preferable over a fortified food as many of these foods are highly processed. Marigold Engivita yeast flakes made from inactive yeast without additives is an exception and can be very beneficial sprinkled over your meals to help ensure adequate B-12.
Vitamin B-12 comes in different forms including cyano, methyl, deoxyadenosyl & hydroxy cobalamin, supplements that contain methylcobalamin are the best ones to buy and the DV for vitamin B12 is 6.0 mcg.
2. Are you getting enough vitamin D ?
The best source of vitamin D is the sun! 20 minutes of sun on your skin a day will give you all the vitamin D you need, however it depends where you live. At latitudes above about 40 degrees (which includes UK) blood levels of vitamin D decline between October & March not only through covering up to keep warm but because the required ultraviolet radiation required declines. The alternatives to sun are vitamin D from food, fortified foods or supplements.
Omnivores can consume vitamin D3 through various animal foods and for vegetarians eggs (yolk) are a good source, but for a vegan there is negligible, if any, dietary intake of vitamin D. So, if as a vegan you are planning to conceive a baby, then a vitamin D supplement is essential. There are two forms of vitamin D – cholecalciferol (D3) and ergocalciferol (D2). Cholecalciferol is the form produced by sunlight on the skin and the better form to supplement with though not all D3 supplements are vegan friendly; look to supplement 15mcg daily.
3. What about protein, iron & zinc?
Criticism of a vegan diet is often centered around whether there is enough protein, iron & zinc in the diet, this probably stems from the fact that foods of animal origins are major sources of all three, but concern for deficiency in these nutrients is misplaced. Protein is vital for cell growth and development and for preconception, by eating a variety of plant based protein foods to include nuts, seeds, vegetables, grains and beans adequate protein requirements can easily be met. Three excellent complete proteins (i.e contain all the essential amino acids) are buckwheat, hemp seed & quinoa.
During the period that you are trying to conceive aim for around 55g protein per day. 100g buckwheat provides 13g protein, 100g quinoa provides 13g & 100g hemp 30g
Zinc has been the focus of numerous studies in fertility and a successful pregnancy. Even a mild zinc deficiency can drastically reduce sperm counts and a deficiency will also affect how long the sperm can live in the vaginal tract. Zinc helps women to more effectively utilise the hormones oestrogen and progesterone, to achieve conception. Good vegan sources of zinc include nuts, whole grains, pumpkin seeds, sunflower seeds & pulses. Protein increases
zinc absorption, because of this, foods high in protein and zinc, such as pulses and nuts, are a good choice.
Plant based diets easily meet the recommended intakes of iron - oats, lentils& greens are all very good choices. However iron from meat in the form of haem iron is more readily absorbed than the non haem iron found in plants; including vitamin C rich foods with foods containing iron will enhance the absorption of non haem iron – porridge with blackcurrants; lentils with tomatoes & greens with potatoes though of course greens are a good source of vitamin C and iron!
4. Should I take an omega-3 supplement?
Vegan options for omega 3s include flax, hemp & walnut. These sources contain the fatty acid ALA which ideally can convert to DHA and EPA, however studies show that the human body does not convert ALA to EPA and DHA well. These nutrients are so important it is worth taking a microalgae supplement that can provide the fatty acids DHA, EPA & ALA.
5. Enjoy the benefits of fermented foods
If you choose to eat soya the best way to eat it is fermented tempeh, & misoare good choices whereas tofu and soya milk are best avoided. Include a whole range of fermented foods like sauerkruat and kimchi, which will support your gut flora.