Super Foods for Vegetarian Pregnancy and Lactation
What you eat makes a big difference in how you feel physically and emotionally while pregnant or breastfeeding. Your diet also directly affects the health of your baby. Vegetarian women must take extra care to ensure they are getting the nutrients they need in order for mother and baby to thrive. I experienced a major difference between my two pregnancies. During my first pregnancy, I frequently ate out because I did not feel like cooking.
Although fresh fruit, vegetables, and whole grains made up a large part of my diet, I did not pay attention to protein and fat. Consequently, my blood sugar levels were unstable, causing me to be forgetful, lightheaded, moody, and tired. I was consistently underweight in my pregnancy and I went into labor six weeks early. Fortunately, my baby and I were fine.
Helpful books recommended by VegKitchen:
- The Vegetarian Mother’s Cookbook* by Cathe Olson (review)
- Everything Vegan Pregnancy Book* by Reed Mangels, RD, PhD (review)
My second pregnancy was much better. I rarely dined out. (I did have a toddler, after all.) I studied books on pregnancy nutrition and came up with a good eating plan. I regularly ate concentrated protein foods like tempeh, tofu, beans, legumes, nuts, seeds, and homemade yogurt. I also ate a lot of dark green leafy vegetables, whole grains, and cultured foods.
I thrived during this pregnancy. My weight gain was always right at the recommended levels. I had energy; I was clearheaded; and I felt good. I kept a food log that my midwife reviewed at every prenatal appointment. She was so impressed that she passed the log on to her other vegetarian clients to give them ideas for nourishing meals.
My second daughter was born close to her due date. There was some stress on the baby during the birth because of a minor complication, so when my daughter emerged she was slightly blue, but within seconds she returned to normal color. My midwife said my baby was able to recover so quickly because she was well nourished.
Following are foods that I found especially beneficial during pregnancy and lactation.
Beans and Legumes
Beans and legumes are good sources of protein, fiber, calcium, iron, thiamin, and niacin. They are a crucial part of a vegetarian diet. Make a big batch of beans when you have time and freeze them in small containers. Canned beans are available also. They are just slightly lower in nutrients than home cooked due to the high heat processing. Canned beans usually contain high amounts of sodium, however. Draining and rinsing away the canning liquid will remove a lot of the sodium.
Soybeans provide more protein than any other bean or legume, making them a staple of many vegetarian diets. Soybeans are rich in many nutrients, including calcium and iron. Fermented soy products like tempeh or miso are especially beneficial because they contain healthy bacteria and enzymes that aid digestion, and the phytic acid is neutralized by the culturing process.
Avoid fabricated soy foods (e.g., fake meats, protein powders) made with soy protein isolates or textured vegetable protein, which are created using a highly chemical process and usually have MSG or artificial flavors added. Also, keep in mind that although soy is a great protein source, it is not the only one. Moderation and variety are important in a vegetarian diet and you shouldn’t rely on any one food for nutrients.
Whole grains like brown rice, quinoa, millet, and oats supply fiber, minerals, B complex vitamins, and protein. Buy the least processed grain types you can find. Many commercially prepared grains have the germ and bran removed to increase shelf life and shorten preparation time. Even if they are “enriched,” this does not replace the nutrition that was lost in the processing.
Dark Green Leafy Vegetables and Cabbage Family Vegetables
Dark green leafy vegetables (kale, collard greens, watercress, etc.) are especially important while pregnant or lactating because they supply so many vitamins and minerals, including vitamins A and C, calcium, and iron. Dark leafy green vegetables also are rich in phytochemicals like beta carotein and lutein which protect against many forms of cancer. Certain greens like spinach and Swiss chard are high in oxalic acid, which inhibit the absorption of much of the calcium and iron. Cooking helps to neutralize some of the oxalic acid.
Vegetables from the cabbage family (broccoli, brussels sprouts, cabbage, etc.) are exceptional sources of vitamin A, vitamin C, and calcium. They are also rich in phytochemicals that have anticancer properties.
Dark green leafy vegetables and cabbage family vegetables provide important nutrients that help to promote a plentiful milk supply for your baby. Buy fresh, organic vegetables whenever possible and eat at least one serving every day.
Cultured and Fermented Foods
Naturally cultured and fermented foods contain enzymes and bacteria that help digest food and eliminate wastes. They also help build up friendly bacteria in the intestines, which is especially important after taking antibiotics. (Most hospitals give women antibiotics during labor.) Eat plenty of fermented foods during pregnancy when your digestive system may be sluggish. They can help prevent constipation and other digestive problems, and are useful in preventing and treating yeast infections.
Cultured and fermented foods include natural, unpasteurized miso, naturally fermented vegetable pickles and sauerkraut, yogurt, and Rejuvelac. Never boil these foods as high temperatures will destroy the beneficial bacteria.
Blackstrap molasses contains high amounts of calcium and iron, plus magnesium, potassium, copper, and chromium. Buy organic, unsulphured molasses and use it to sweeten porridge, smoothies, and baked goods.
Nutritional yeast is an exceptional source of almost all B complex vitamins as well as being high in protein. Look for nutritional yeast flakes enriched with vitamin B12 like Red Star(R) Vegetarian Support Formula. Nutritional yeast flakes can be added to soups, sauces, tofu scrambles, cereals, smoothies, and other foods.
Nuts and Seeds
Nuts and seeds are good sources of fiber, protein, minerals, and essential fatty acids. Be sure to eat flaxseeds, chia seeds, pumpkin seeds, and/or walnuts to get omega-3 fatty acids, which are important for baby’s brain and nervous system development as well as your own health. Nuts and seeds can be eaten raw or toasted. Small seeds like sesame and flax must be ground in a coffee grinder, seed grinder, or blender in order for nutrients to be utilized. Nut and seed butters are delicious on crackers or toast or used as a dip or sauce.
Note: Allergies to peanut products affect approximately 1% of the U.S. population. Although there hasn’t been extensive research on fetal sensitization, recent studies suggest that when a pregnant woman consumes peanut products, the fetus may be exposed to peanut allergens. If there is a predisposition to allergies, the infant could develop a peanut allergy. Therefore, parents with food allergies and/or family histories of nut allergies may want to avoid peanuts while pregnant or breastfeeding. Almond butter, cashew butter, pumpkin seed butter, or tahini (sesame seed butter) can replace peanut butter in sandwiches and recipes.
Pregnancy and lactation are wonderful, special times in a woman’s life. The baby you are nurturing is truly an incredible gift, and the experience of giving birth is something you will always remember and cherish. Eating these super foods will help you to feel strong and vibrant so you will be able to make the most of this special time.
Cathe Olson is the author of Simply Natural Baby Food , The Vegetarian Mother’s Cookbook,* and Lick It! Cream,* Dreamy Vegan Ice Creams Your Mouth Will Love.* For more information and sample recipes, visit Cathe at Simply Natural Books.
- For more tips on plant-based nutrition, make sure to browse VegKitchen’s Nutrition page.
- For lots more features on healthy lifestyle, please explore VegKitchen’s Healthy Vegan Kitchen page.
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