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There are a few special cases where your diet may need to be planned a little more carefully during pregnancy. For example, if you are vegetarian, vegan or suffer from reactions to some foods, special attention needs to be given to your diet to ensure that you and your unborn child obtain all the nutrients you need. With the help of your doctor and accredited practising dietitian, good nutrition can be achieved and readily managed.
What if I’m a vegetarian?
You can certainly continue to follow a vegetarian diet during your pregnancy and satisfy your nutritional needs as well as those of your unborn child.
What do I need to be particularly careful about?
Vegetarian diets can potentially be low in protein. However, with careful planning and by regularly including protein-rich foods in the diet, your protein needs can be met. Aim to include a variety of protein-rich foods like:
- Milk, cheese and yogurt (made from cow´s milk or soy drink).
- Legumes, like kidney beans, lima beans, broad beans, chick peas, split peas, lentils, baked beans.
- Tofu or bean curd.
- Nuts and seeds.
- Wholegrain breads and cereals.
Some strict vegetarian diets may be low in vitamin B12, iron and zinc. This is because the richest sources of this vitamin and these two minerals (namely meat, poultry and seafood) are excluded from the diet. However, by eating a wide variety of foods from the list above, this potential problem can be reduced.
Vitamin B12 can be found in milk, dairy foods, eggs and soy drinks with added vitamin B12 (check the label).
Some breakfast cereals, breads, milks and fruit juices are fortified (enriched) with iron, so try to choose products that have had this mineral added.
Small quantities of iron can also be found in eggs, wholegrain breads, legumes (e.g. baked beans, lentils & chick peas), spinach and bok choy. Vegetarian sources of zinc include legumes, wholegrain cereals, eggs and dairy foods.
It is wise to discuss your dietary habits with your dietitian or doctor if you are concerned. These professionals can provide more specific dietary advice and determine if you need to take a vitamin or mineral supplement.
What if I’m a vegan?
A vegan diet excludes all foods of animal origin (including dairy products and eggs). This presents a challenge because foods of animal origin are the richest sources of amino acids – the building blocks of protein. Vegan mothers may find it difficult to eat sufficient protein and therefore amino acids to maintain body muscle mass and to meet the needs of their growing foetus.
Plant proteins generally contain lower levels of essential amino acids than do animal proteins. It may be difficult to meet your requirements for the essential amino acids by just relying on plant-based foods. Nevertheless, nuts, seeds, peanut butter, tahini, tofu and legumes like soy beans, lentils, kidney beans, chick peas, split peas and baked beans are sources of amino acids and should, therefore, be included in your diet as often as possible.
A vegan diet may be low in certain vitamins, especially vitamin B12, iron, zinc and calcium. You should talk to your dietitian or doctor about the need for a vitamin or mineral supplement during pregnancy if you are a vegan.
What if I’m allergic or intolerant to certain foods?
If you react badly to some foods due to a food allergy, the only remedy is to eliminate them completely from the diet, in accordance with instructions from your doctor and accredited practising dietitian. For vegetarians or vegans, the most difficult situations are when you have an allergic reaction to fish, shellfish, milk, soy drink, nuts or soybeans, since these foods form an important part of the diet and are significant sources of some important nutrients. Allergies to these foods or other foods can be very serious. If you have an allergy to foods that are important for your nutritional well being, it is very important to discuss your problem with an accredited practising dietitian and your doctor. Each allergy needs to be dealt with on a case-by-case basis.
Allergies to milk and milk products are very rare in adults. However, intolerance to the lactose found in milk is more common. The amount of lactose that can be consumed before symptoms occur varies. Some people cannot tolerate lactose-rich foods at all, whereas others may be able to tolerate lactose-rich foods in larger amounts. If milk is not well tolerated and needs to be restricted in the diet, other calcium-rich foods must replace it to ensure your calcium needs are met.
The following foods contain as much calcium as a glass of milk (approximately 300 mg):
- 1 cup (250mL) calcium enriched soy drink.
- 1 cup (250mL) lactose-free milk (UHT milk).
- 2 slices (40g) cheddar or Edam cheese.
- 1/3 cup mozzarella cheese.
- 200g tub yogurt – (yogurt contains lactose, but some of the lactose is predigested by the yogurts’ natural bacteria, making it better tolerated than milk).
- 120g pink salmon.
- ½ cup tofu (bean curd).
You might also consider taking a calcium supplement if it is necessary.
When it comes to infants and young children, however, allergies to milk proteins are more common. If you have a family history of allergies, it is advisable to discuss this with your doctor during the early part of your pregnancy.
What if my blood sugar levels are too high?
A small number of women experience high blood sugar levels during their pregnancy. Having high blood sugar levels may harm the growing foetus and can result in the birth of a large baby – making delivery difficult.
If you have been told by your doctor that you have high blood sugars, controlling the condition is really important for the well-being of both you and your unborn child.
The treatment for most women with high blood sugar levels during pregnancy is a healthy, balanced diet and regular meals. An Accredited Practising Dietitian (Australia) or a Registered Dietitian (New Zealand) will guide you with your eating habits, with the aim of controlling your blood sugars. Gentle exercise also plays an important role – your doctor will provide you with advice on suitable exercises, based on your condition. Some women may need to take insulin, under the direction of their doctor.