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What do you need to know about nutrition if you're vegetarian and trying to conceive, pregnant, or raising a vegetarian infant?

I am in the somewhat unusual position, for someone from western Europe at least, of being a second-generation (lacto-ovo) vegetarian now raising third-generation veggies. Inspired by a personal encounter with the factory farming that was then still on the rise, my mother, as a teenager, unilaterally decided she no longer wished to eat meat. She knew no other vegetarians at that time, and didn’t until much later. (Yep, I checked, and I myself was the second vegetarian she ever encountered!)

By the time my father and she were ready for a baby, even he questioned whether vegetarians could get pregnant. When she did conceive, a relative who was a doctor warned her that her child might be born looking healthy, but would likely turn out to be infertile. Slightly worried, she decided to compromise and eat fish for the duration of her pregnancy.

I, on the other hand, having grown up meat-free, simply carried on attempting to eat a varied and healthy diet during my pregnancies. Vegetarianism being more popular by this time, I received no disparaging or concerned comments from anyone, including healthcare professionals. What do you do if the worried voices don't come from others, but from within you, though?

Are worried prospective parents right to run the question of whether it is possible to raise healthy vegetarian children — from the time before they are even conceived — through their minds?

Thankfully, the answer very much appears to be “no: though considering your nutrition during pregnancy and the preconception stage carefully is always wise, as your baby’s health does partially depend on what you eat, vegetarians have no reason to be more concerned than other future parents”.

That is, studies stretching back decades make it perfectly clear that the birth weights of babies born to lacto-ovo vegetarians and vegans as well do not differ from the birth weights of those of meat-eaters in any statistically significant way. (Macrobiotic parents, however, may be grateful to receive the information that infants born to macrobiotic mothers indeed tend to have lower birth weights, and may consider adjusting their diets for the duration of their pregnancies.)

Contrary to popular belief, vegetarians and vegans do not have statistically significantly higher rates of iron-deficiency anemia either.

Do vegetarian women have anything to consider when they start trying to conceive, then? Indeed, they do.

  • Folate (synthetically known as folic acid) is a hugely important nutrient during preconception and early pregnancy, as its intake has been shown to greatly reduce the risk of neural tube defects such as spina bifida. Amply available through all manner of leafy greens, this is not a nutrient vegetarians who consume lots of greens have to worry about.

  • Protein, which lacto-ovo vegetarians can get from such sources as beans, soy products, nuts, eggs, and grains isn’t a concern for the average veggie either. It is recommended that you consume a combined daily total of 60 grams a day in pregnancy.

  • Calcium and vitamin D, which work in cooperation, are both important to maintain your health during pregnancy. Should your intake of calcium be inadequate, your own body will become your baby’s source of calcium. Dairy and greens will be an adequate source of calcium for lacto-ovo veggies during pregnancy, as long as they were not deficient prior to conceiving. Ask your healthcare provider, based on the time you spend outside and the climate where you live, whether you need to take a vitamin D supplement.

  • Vitamin B12, which only reliably comes from animal sources in food, is an essential nutrient during pregnancy and in general. The recommended daily intake is 2.2 mcg. Talk to your healthcare provider about supplement recommendations or look for fortified foods, of which there are plenty, if you are a vegan. If you are a lacto-ovo veggie, you will not typically need to worry.

  • Zinc is another important nutrient. While you are no more at risk of a deficiency as a vegetarian than your meat-eating peers, make sure you eat things like hard cheese, dried beans and miso.

  • Vegetarians, being slimmer, on the whole, than meat eaters, should make sure they gain an adequate amount of weight during their pregnancies, in consultation with their healthcare providers.

While new vegetarians who are also trying to conceive or pregnant might have to make some special efforts to ensure that their diet meets all their nutritional needs, as they’re still adjusting to a new diet, those who have been vegetarian for a (long) while will not typically need to make any dietary changes during pregnancy. (None, that is, besides those any pregnant mother will make: no alcohol, less caffeine, you know the drill!)

These brief tips also more or less form a road map your child will benefit from for the rest of their lives ‒ a healthy vegetarian diet is a varied diet that includes all essential nutrients.
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