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Ask the experts: Vegetarians and pregnancy

Q: “My partner is vegetarian and pregnant. Is this detrimental to the health of the baby, and will it have an effect on the nutritional value of breast milk?”

Steve Dougherty

A: We talked to Dr Jane Coad at the Institute of Food, Nutrition and Human Health, at Massey University. She told us that a vegetarian consuming a healthy balanced diet should not have any concerns about the nutrient adequacy of her diet during pregnancy or breastfeeding. However, there are several nutrients that are of concern with some vegetarians, so it’s a good idea to review these. The nutrients that can be of most concern are iron, calcium and protein.

For omnivores, the best source of iron in the diet is red meat. For vegetarians, alternative sources might include: tofu, red kidney and other beans, dark green vegetables and fortified breakfast cereals. Remember that non-animal sources of iron are not as easily absorbed by the body as animal sources, so have them with other foods or drinks that contain vitamin C to increase absorption.

For those who don’t like or choose not to eat or drink dairy products, alternative calcium sources include: soy drinks (some are fortified with calcium), tofu and fortified breakfast cereals. Fruit, vegetables and nuts will also provide some calcium.

Protein is important during pregnancy and while most meat-eaters consume more than enough protein, this is not always the case for vegetarians. So think about the protein sources in your diet, and try to include protein in each meal.

Most plant-based foods are incomplete protein. Combining different plant proteins overcomes this problem. For example, combine pulses (lentils, chickpeas, canellini and other beans etc) with grains (wheat, corn, rice etc) and/or seeds and nuts for high quality protein in a vegetarian diet. Protein sources include: cereals and grains, pulses, nuts and seeds, fruit and vegetables, milk and milk products, and eggs.

Vitamin A requirements are also more difficult for vegetarian women to fulfil so you need to ensure you’re including brightly coloured orange and yellow vegetables.

Fish contains long-chain polyunsaturated fatty acids that are important during pregnancy – so even if you normally wouldn’t eat fish, it is strongly recommended at this time. Remember to avoid shellfish and the large species that can contain mercury.

Vitamin B12 is an issue for complete vegans, as it’s found only in animal products. It’s recommended vegans take a vitamin B12 supplement containing 2µg per day during pregnancy and breastfeeding.

Date modified: 27 September 2021
First published: Jun 2005


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