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The Vegetarian Mom-to-Be (part 1) - Is a Vegetarian Diet Safe During Pregnanc, Omega-3 Essential Fatty Acids

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1. What Type Are You?

Before discussing the pros and cons of following a vegetarian diet during pregnancy, it is necessary to be aware that there are difference types of vegetarian diets. People turn to vegetarian diets for all kinds of reasons, including religious, ethical, environmental, and personal health concerns. For some, vegetarianism is simply a way of eating while for others it is a way of life. There are different types of vegetarian eating styles, and each one differs as to what nutrients may be missing and what adjustments might be necessary to ensure optimal nutritional intake during pregnancy.

Vegetarianism is a type of eating style that is a matter of personal choice. Some people choose to avoid all animal products, while others may choose to consume some animal foods such as eggs and/or dairy products (lacto-ovo vegetarian). Only a small percentage of vegetarians are strict vegetarians, or vegans, who avoid all animal products. The majority of vegetarians in the United States fit into the lacto-ovo vegetarian category.

Vegetarians are classified into several different categories, as follows:

Vegan or strict vegetarian—Absolutely no animal foods, including meat, fish, poultry, eggs, milk, or other dairy products. Also, no foods made with any type of animal product, such as refried beans made with lard or baked goods made with eggs.

Lacto vegetarian—Dairy foods permitted, but no other animal foods including eggs and meat (meat, poultry, fish, and seafood.)

Lacto-ovo vegetarian—Dairy foods and eggs permitted, but no other animal foods, including meats (meat, poultry, fish, and seafood).

Semi-vegetarian—A mostly vegetarian diet (lacto-ovo-vegetarian), but meat, poultry, or fish permitted occasionally.

2. Is a Vegetarian Diet Safe During Pregnancy?

With careful planning, a vegetarian diet, no matter what the type, can be healthy and safe during pregnancy. It is essential to assess your intake of certain nutrients that are especially important during pregnancy. These nutrients include vitamin B12, calcium, vitamin D, iron, zinc, and protein.

If you follow a lacto-ovo or a lacto vegetarian diet, meaning you include dairy or dairy and eggs in your eating plan, you have fewer nutritional hurdles to get over. If you are vegan, you have to be much more vigilant about consuming all of the essential nutrients you need for a healthy pregnancy. That includes making sure that you consume enough calories recommended for pregnancy. Vegetarians, especially vegans, should keep tabs on their weight gain during pregnancy.

The Benefits

Vegetarian diets can be very healthy if designed correctly. A healthy, well-planned vegetarian diet usually contains more fiber. It is also lower in total fat, especially saturated fat and dietary cholesterol, which can help lower the risk for diseases such as heart disease, stroke, and some cancers. In addition, LDL blood cholesterol (the “bad” cholesterol) levels are generally lower in vegetarians, which can decrease the incidence of death from heart disease. Vegetarians tend to have a lower incidence of hypertension, Type 2 diabetes, obesity, and some forms of cancers such as lung and colon, than people who eat meat. Vegetarian diets that are high in fruits, vegetables, and whole grains also tend to be higher in folic acid, antioxidants such as vitamins C and E, carotenoids, and phytochemicals. All these benefits give this eating style an extra disease-fighting punch. However, the key to being at a lower risk for these health problems is following a properly balanced vegetarian diet.

Keep in mind that not all vegetarian protein sources are low in fat. Popular protein sources, such as nuts and seeds, can be high in fat. These contain unsaturated (or healthy) fats, but small amounts can pack in lots of calories.

The Pitfalls

It is important to keep in mind that being a vegetarian does not guarantee that you are eating a healthy diet. A poorly planned vegetarian diet can cause some nutritional deficiencies. It can also be high in fat, cholesterol, and calories and low in fiber. Some vegetarians may have a high saturated-fat intake from consuming too many eggs, cream, butter, whole-milk products, and cheese. Vegetarians may get into the rut of eating too many low-fiber starches without including enough of the other food groups, such as plant-based proteins, fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and dairy foods (if included in their eating style).

Despite some of the pitfalls of a vegetarian diet, you can still reap the benefits of a vegetarian lifestyle as long as you plan your meals correctly and you eat higher fat, higher sugar foods in moderation.

3. Omega-3 Essential Fatty Acids

Fats are made up of two types: saturated and unsaturated. Unsaturated fats include monounsaturated and polyunsaturated. Two polyunsaturated fatty acids, linoleic acid (omega-6) and alpha-linolenic acid (omega-3), are considered essential because the body cannot make them. Omega-3 fatty acids are essential fats that can be very heart-healthy as well as vital to the development of a baby’s brain and nerves. They are also vital to eye development, growth, and vision. In addition, researchers are studying the question of whether omega-3 fatty acids are helpful in preventing preterm labor and possibly protecting against postpartum depression.

Sources of Omega-3 Fatty Acids

Vegetarians are advised to consume omega-3 fatty acids from eggs as well as from plant-based ingredients such as canola oil, soybean oil, walnuts, walnut oil, ground flaxseed (which you can add to baked goods or smoothies), flaxseed oil, soybeans, wheat germ, and other nuts and seeds. For vegetarians who consume fish, fatty fish such as salmon, mackerel, herring, trout, tuna, and sardines also supply omega-3 fatty acids. If you consider a fish-oil supplement as another means of getting Omega-3 fatty acids, beware that some (those that come from the liver of the fish) can contain high levels of vitamin A, which in excessive doses may cause birth defects. Even though pregnant women need to be careful of how much fish and the type of fish they eat, keep in mind that not all fish contain toxic levels of mercury. Eating a few servings a week of allowed fish can help ensure your intake of Omega-3 fatty acids.

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