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Veggies for Two: Pregnant Women Can Be Meat-Free and Healthy

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Despite what your grandmother (or your bro-y neighbor who is a little into bodybuilding) may have told you, a vegetarian or vegan diet can be as nutritionally balanced as any omnivorous way of eating. Still, even among longtime proponents of plant-based eating, there can be hesitation about totally eliminating animal products during pregnancy due to concerns about the health of the child. Now, research suggests that for most healthy pregnant women, those worries could be totally unfounded.

The Pregnancy Balancing Act

Over the course of a pregnancy, a woman's body goes through an incredible amount of physical and hormonal changes. These, in turn, impact her nutritional needs while she is "eating for two." A woman will eat more calories and experience a higher demand for vitamins and nutrients such as calcium, folate, and iron.

If she doesn't meet those needs, she risks her own health in terms of vitamin deficiencies, gestational diabetes, and anemia. On top of that, a poor diet could result in a premature labor, low birth weight, and increased potential for birth defects and health concerns like diabetes later in life.

Though these needs and risks are widely known, the way to meet them has been subject for debate. And many pregnant women develop new food aversions or cravings (pickles and ice cream, anyone?). In Western countries, vegetarian and vegan diets have particularly been called into question over their ability to provide adequate amounts of vitamin B12, iron, and other vital nutrients in pregnancy. However, a review of 22 studies on vegan and vegetarian pregnancies published in 2015 in the BJOG laid some of those fears to rest. It concluded that healthy pregnant women who reduced or eliminated animal products faced no higher risks of major health problems than their dairy and meat-eating counterparts.

Know Your Sources

According to the BJOG report, as long as nutritional needs (particularly iron and B12) are met, it does not matter whether they come from animals or plants. Foods like tofu or nutritional yeast could provide essential B vitamins for a vegetarian or vegan. Spinach, kale, and lentils could add a boost of iron. And supplements such as folic acid and vitamin D could further support health throughout pregnancy. If iron absorption is an issue, soaking beans and whole grains before eating could help, and has the added bonus of reducing cooking time.

The authors stressed that these studies were conducted on "healthy" women only, and that more research was needed to determine whether vegetarian and vegan diets are suitable for pregnant women with prior health conditions. Until further information is available, any pregnant woman with concerns should consult her doctor to determine the best eating plan for her body and her baby.

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