What to Eat When You're Pregnant and Vegetarian : Other essential vitamins and minerals (part 5) - Zinc, Iodine, Selenium

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What it’s for: Zinc is needed to make new cells and enzymes and to help wounds heal. The body also needs zinc to process the protein, carbohydrates and fats we eat.

Amount needed: During pregnancy you need 7mg of zinc per day. This increases to 13mg per day if you are breastfeeding exclusively, and 9.5mg a day once your baby is also having other food. Some studies have found that lacto-ovo-vegetarians have lower intakes of zinc than meat-eaters, but other studies have found similar levels. The EPIC study found that lacto-ovo-vegetarians had lower zinc intakes than meat-eaters and fish-eaters. Vegans had lower intakes still, but the average intake for all groups met the recommended level of 7mg per day. Meat is rich in zinc, but those who eat plenty of wholegrain foods also have a good intake. Vegetarians actually tend to absorb less zinc because of higher fibre and phytate intakes, but blood tests have found that lacto-ovo-vegetarians generally have adequate levels in their blood.

Where it’s found: Zinc is found in milk, milk products and wholegrain cereal products. Although wheatgerm and bran are rich in zinc, little is absorbed due to high phytic acid levels.

  Zinc (mg) per 100g Zinc per portion
Milk 0.4 1.2mg per half-pint/300ml
Cheddar 2.3 0.7mg per 30g portion
Wholemeal bread 1.6 1.3mg per two slices
Pine nuts 6.5 0.9mg per tablespoon
Nori seaweed (dried) 6.4 0.2mg per 2.5g sheet
Wholemeal pasta 1.2 2.4mg per 240g portion
Bran flakes 2.5 1mg per 40g bowl
Muesli 2.3 1.2mg per 50g bowl


What it’s for: Iodine is important for the development of the nervous system, particularly during the first three months of pregnancy. Babies of iodine-deficient women can have poor mental development. Iodine is also needed for the production of thyroid hormones. Deficiency is extremely rare in European countries, but women with marginal intakes can start to show signs of deficiency during pregnancy. The most obvious sign of deficiency is a goitre, which is a large swelling on the neck.

Amount needed: 140µg per day.

Where it’s found: The main sources of iodine for lacto-ovo-vegetarians are milk and milk products. Research has shown that organic milk has around 40% of the level of iodine contained in conventional milk, reflecting the lower iodine intake of the cows. Therefore if you have organic milk, it’s important to ensure you get enough iodine from other sources. Using salt with iodine added (iodised salt) is one way of increasing your intake, but obviously lots of salt isn’t good for heart health.

Seaweed is an excellent source of iodine and is becoming increasingly easy to find. Dried seaweed is available in healthfood shops and many supermarkets, or if you know what you’re doing, you can get it from the sea. You need to be careful about what type of seaweed you eat and how much you have, as some varieties contain incredibly high levels of iodine, so it is easy to have too much (see table). Very high intakes can interfere with thyroid function and it is not advisable to have more than about 300µg of iodine per day. The Vegan Society suggests that kombu is a good source of iodine, as it seems to have a fairly consistent iodine content. If you have a shaker in the kitchen containing 15g, this is sufficient for one person for a year (about 180µg per day). It may be easier to monitor if you have a smaller amount – say 3g for three months’ supply (around 145µg per day).

  Iodine (µg) per 100g Iodine per portion
Milk (conventional, not organic) 25–30 75–90µg per half-pint/300ml
Cheddar 39 11µg per 30g portion
Nori (dried seaweed) 1,470 36µg per 2.5g sheet
Wakame (dried seaweed) 16,830 168µg per 1g
Kombu or kelp (dried seaweed) 440,670 4,400µg per 1g

High intakes: Cases of vegetarians having excessively high intakes of iodine are occasionally reported. These are usually associated with high intakes of kelp but there is also a risk if several different sources of iodine are taken, for example iodised salt, seaweed and supplements. If you are getting iodine from several sources, it’s important to monitor your intake.


What it’s for: Selenium is an antioxidant and therefore protects against cell damage. It also plays an important role in the immune system, thyroid hormone metabolism and reproduction. Research suggests that having a good intake of selenium during pregnancy may reduce the risk of your baby developing eczema and wheezing, which can be an early sign of asthma.

Amount needed: Women are advised to consume 60µg per day in pregnancy and 75µg per day while breastfeeding. Selenium intakes in the UK have fallen since the 1970s when we started eating more wheat from Europe and less from North America, where the soil is more selenium-rich. Average intakes are now below recommended levels for meat-eaters and vegetarians alike. Studies comparing selenium intakes and blood levels of selenium in lacto-ovo-vegetarians, vegans and meat-eaters have had mixed results, with some concluding that vegetarians’ intakes are especially low but not others.

Where it’s found: Selenium is not found in a wide range of foods. Brazil nuts are an excellent source and have been found to contain between 85 and 690µg per 100g, which is an incredibly wide range but reflects the levels found in different soils. If you have chocolate, or carob, coated brazils then you can have a treat but know you’re getting something healthy too.

  Selenium (µg) per 100g Selenium per portion
Brazil nuts (average) 254 76µg per 30g handful
Cashew nuts 29 9µg per 30g handful
Wholemeal bread 7 5µg per two slices
Eggs 11 13µg per two eggs
Lentils, cooked 40 32µg per 2 tablespoons
Kidney beans, cooked 6 5µg per 2 tablespoons

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