Being vegetarian during pregnancy

My diet has always been a topic of conversation ever since I went vegetarian and especially when I decided to go vegan just before I became pregnant. Most people just find it interesting, others are intrigued about what I might actually eat in a day and some have literally no idea how one could possibly survive without any animal products. When you’re then adding pregnancy to the equation, people are generally worried that the baby won’t get everything she needs in order to be as healthy as she could possibly be.

But eating healthily comes in so many different shapes and forms. Even before I was pregnant I was always very conscious about the nutritional challenges of a vegan/vegetarian diet and that, unless done right, it could do a lot more harm than good. It’s for good reasons that some people who decide to go vegan without thinking too much of it, revert to eating as before just a few weeks later because they’re feeling horrible and deprived. Changing your diet quite drastically requires discipline and you have to learn how to make it work for you first. I have always been exercising quite a lot, had stressful jobs, have generally been very active and knew that I needed a diet that could accommodate for all that – and I will tell you how. 

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Once I found out I was pregnant, I instantly thought about how I should tweak my diet on a daily basis to make sure baby would get all the nutrients she needs and obviously to avoid putting her at any risk too. I think most mums can relate to this, it’s a weird feeling of pressure because all of a sudden you’re not just thinking about what is good for yourself but more about what is best to grow another human.

I have been on a pretty healthy diet for a long time now. I would cook most of my main meals from scratch, I try to reduce the amount of processed foods I eat to a minimum and I’m definitely never struggling to get my ‘5 a day’. Since I’ve been vegetarian it sort of came naturally anyway to replace the meat with more vegetables, or a good plant-based protein. However, there’s no point in denying that I love a good treat as well – thank God the term ‘balance’ is widely accepted when it comes to your diet. There’s clearly ways to even keep your treats super healthy and I’m a big fan of that, but sometimes nothing other than Ben & Jerry’s or chocolate digestives can cut it; you probably know what I mean!

A few months before I became pregnant I actually changed to a vegan diet, so I cut out any dairy products and eggs as well. It wasn’t too much of a change for me as I used to cook vegan a lot anyway, and I haven’t had any cow’s milk on its own for years, so the hardest bit really was forgoing cheese. No, soy cheese and nut cheese surely isn’t the same, and as much as I like to tell myself that pizza without cheese is still delicious, it admittedly took me a while to get used to the idea. But a few weeks later these things were totally fine, and once I had changed my habits a bit I didn’t even realise anymore that I was actively cutting certain foods out. Most importantly I felt great and didn’t think once that I was missing anything.

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The check-up

The first thing they do very early in pregnancy is to take a blood test to get an idea of any deficiencies you might have so you can adjust your diet moving forward if needed. I wasn’t concerned that mine would come back with any major issues as I was feeling great and I have always had an eye on getting all the different nutrients I needed, especially whilst I was eating vegan. Nevertheless I prepared myself to be asked to make some changes in the long term to accommodate for growing a baby inside of me.

Much to my surprise though, my results came back as positive as they could be and my GP said she wouldn’t recommend changing a single thing (point made – eating vegan CAN be healthy, if you do it right). My iron levels were at a decent 55 and everything else looked great too. She did suggest to start taking iron supplements just to be on the safe side which I started doing straight away in addition to my prenatal vitamins I was taking already. I also got myself a vitamin B12 supplement (which was surprisingly hard to get!) as there are only very few plant-based sources that contain sufficient amounts.

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The setback

And then things changed quite drastically when just a week or so after my doctor’s visit my morning sickness started to properly kick in. I had been feeling a bit average for a while at that point, but it became a lot worse at around 9 weeks. The later in the day the worse the sickness became, which is why I regularly skipped dinner just because I couldn’t even think about it, let alone smell food. Lunch had been a struggle as well and whatever I’d eat, it would just leave me feeling horrible for the rest of the day. For some reason my body would totally refuse any food that was even remotely healthy; when usually I love nothing more than a big bowl of salad, it was the last thing I could imagine eating. Instead, one of the few things I could stand the thought of was carbs in whatever shape or form and cheese. Cheese paninis, pizza or burrito bowls quickly became my go-to food pretty much every day for lunch, which obviously left me feeling even more deflated with all the grease I was putting into my body. I couldn’t see myself staying vegan throughout that period, as all of a sudden vegetables and fruit just didn’t resonate with me at all. I tried to at least have a very healthy breakfast and had a lot of cold pressed juices in the morning which was the only time that I felt ok-ish having foods like that.

So there I was, back to being vegetarian and eating more cheese than I had in my entire life. It wasn’t fun. Luckily I didn’t have any sudden meat cravings; even though I believe I would have never given in, you just don’t know what you’re doing when your body tells you it wants this specific thing RIGHT NOW. Thanks for not putting me into this situation I guess?!

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The turning point

Fast forward a good couple of weeks, and I finally started to feel a bit better. I got back on track with my diet as soon as I could and finally enjoyed cooking again. I made sure to incorporate all the good stuff into my diet that I had been lacking those last few weeks.

Some of my favorite vegetarian food sources include:

  • Legumes: Beans, chickpeas or lentils are a great choice both for plant-based protein and iron. If you have an upset tummy already (another lovely side effect of pregnancy) then consider buying dried beans and cooking them instead of using the canned options, as they’re a lot easier to digest.
  • Leafy greens: Think kale, spinach, beetroot leaves, chard, etc. – These super tasty and versatile veggies are full of folic acid which you will need plenty of during pregnancy, plus they stack great amounts of vitamins which aren’t only generally good for you, but assist your body in absorbing iron as well.
  • Iron-fortified foods: Sometimes it can be difficult to get enough iron from natural food sources alone. Even though supplements can help to reach and maintain stable iron levels, it’s always a good idea to add foods that are high in that particular trace mineral. Always check the labels, but typical iron-fortified foods include cereal and most store-bought breads.
  • Soy products: Tempeh, tofu and the like are fantastic plant-based protein sources, but they are also one of the few plant-based sources of vitamin B12. However, the amounts are fairly small, so my GP suggested a supplement which I took throughout pregnancy as well. Again, some cereals are vitamin B12 fortified as well.
  • Cottage cheese: Super high in protein but very low in fat, I felt cottage cheese was one of the few dairy products that were ‘worthwhile’ adding back to my diet throughout pregnancy. And even though you can get some calcium from vegetables such as broccoli or kale, I felt cottage cheese would be a good ‘reliable’ source of calcium as well. There’s also calcium-fortified soy milks which can be a great alternative.
  • Dried fruit: Obviously all dried fruit is high in sugar, but if added in small amounts e.g. to your breakfast cereal or as a small snack they are a great source of fibre, vitamins and also iron and folate. Some dried fruit like prunes or dates is also aiding digestion which can be beneficial during pregnancy in general, but especially if you take iron supplements which can mess with your tummy.
  • Whole grains: Besides vegetables, whole grains are your best source of fibre which you need plenty of when pregnant. Some of my favourites are brown rice, quinoa, freekah, millet or oats.

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Here are a few more tips to help you get enough of what you need:

  • Start every day with a good breakfast: Think of it as a head-start to your healthy eating throughout the day. I usually try to include at least one serve of fruit or veg and lots of whole grains in my breakfast. Even though I wouldn’t always feel like porridge or scrambled eggs with greens on rye bread, I could actually see a noticeable difference as to how I felt throughout the morning compared to having my usual go-to breakfast which is peanut butter on toast.
  • Cover at least 2 important food groups in your main meals: I believe it’s always a safe bet to plan your meal around the veggies you want to use, and then decide which whole grain or protein (or both) would go with it the best.
  • Eat a rainbow: The more different fruit and veg you eat, the better. Yes, leafy greens (and generally anything green!) are great, but don’t forget about all the other great veggie and fruit choices that come with a myriad of benefits, such as beetroot, pumpkin, capsicum, pineapple, berries, kiwi fruit… The list is endless. The more colourful your plate, the more nutrients you’ll get. Another tip to make this work is to buy your fresh produce in small amounts rather than in bulk; that way you can mix things up every day and won’t struggle to work out how to use those 5 zucchinis at once!
  • Take the supplements you need: I know some people have mixed feelings about supplements and feel like they can’t provide you with anything that a balanced diet can’t. But the amounts of nutrients you need in pregnancy are much higher, and it’s often impossible to even get close to what you need through your diet alone. It’s much more sensible to supplement and not take any risks rather than trying hard to change your way of eating, in my opinion anyway.
  • You don’t need a lot of time to eat fresh meals: It might all sound high maintenance, but cooking with a lot of vegetables can be super quick if it has to be. You can throw great salads together in a matter of minutes, or you can cook up a bean stew or curry without even getting the chopping board out. Be creative and save your roast veg or slow cooker meals for the weekends.

Let me know what you eat during your pregnancy in the comments!

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