In Part One of this article, we looked at weight gain as well as caloric and protein needs during pregnancy. Today we are looking at the micronutrients which are essential for a healthy pregnancy and to which (vegan) future mothers should pay extra attention.
It is important to take 400 micrograms of folic acid daily from the moment you want to become pregnant until 10 weeks into pregnancy.
Folic acid reduces the risk of spina bifida in the baby, the risk of premature birth and low birth weight.
Vegans consume on average more folic acid via foods than non-vegans. However, the advice of folic acid supplementation is meant for all women who wish to become pregnant regardless of their diet.
Some population groups need more Vitamin D than they can get from sunlight and food. This includes pregnant women, who are advised to supply 10 mcg vitamin D daily, regardless of their diet and the climate they live in.
Can you just take any vitamin D supplement, or do you have to pay attention to certain factors when selecting a supplement? Both vitamin D2 and vitamin D3 are used in supplements. Both forms are active and do their job in our body. Vitamin D3 has a slightly stronger effect than vitamin D2. But! Vitamin D3 is mostly obtained from animal sources. So basically, if you want to make sure that vitamin D is vegan, you have to check the label.
Calcium is important during pregnancy for the bone structure of unborn babies. Enough calcium during pregnancy lowers the risk of gestational hypertension (high blood pressure) and preeclampsia, and the risk of premature birth.
Great plant sources of calcium are chia and sesame seeds, almonds and beans. In this article you can read more about calcium and learn about other vegan and vegetarian sources of this mineral.
A pregnant woman who cannot meet her calcium needs through diet alone needs to take 600 mg calcium daily as a supplement.
Omega-3 fatty acid DHA
Another very important nutrient in the diet of pregnant women is docosahexaenoic acid (DHA). DHA is a fatty acid from the Omega-3 family. It is known that an adequate intake of DHA during pregnancy and lactation is a prerequisite for proper brain development and vision in infants. The presence of DHA in your child’s diet can further protect him from asthma and other allergy conditions.
Omega-3 acids include alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docahexaenoic acid (DHA). ALA is the primary fatty acid of the Omega-3 family. The best sources of ALA are flaxseed oil and flaxseed, walnuts, canola and hemp oil, chia seeds. EPA and DHA are found almost exclusively in fish and other seafood. The human body can eventually produce EPA and DHA from ALA. It is unclear, however, how much ALA is converted to EPA and DHA and whether this is sufficient for optimal functioning. It is believed that the body of vegetarians is much more efficient at producing EPA and DHA from ALA. In order to achieve the necessary amounts of all the essential fatty acids, it is important to consume the above-mentioned foods – flaxseed oil and flaxseeds, walnuts, canola and hemp oil, chia seeds foods – on a daily basis.
Plant-based DHA supplements, derived from algae, are now available for vegans.
Iodine is present in the body in small amounts (15-20 mg), almost exclusively in the thyroid gland. Thyroid hormones regulate metabolism in most cells and play a crucial role in the early growth and development of most organs, especially the brain. In humans, much of the growth and brain development occurs during the foetal period and during the first three years of life. A significant lack of Iodine during this critical period may cause hypothyroidism (low thyroid hormone level) and brain damage. The clinical consequence would be an irreversible mental retardation.
Iodine deficiency is a world-wide problem and affects both vegans and non-vegans. However, vegans are known to have a higher risk of developing iodine deficiency. It is not exactly clear why but there is a theory. It implies that vegans can be restrictive more often in their diet, meaning that they don’t only exclude foods of animal origins from their diet but also other food groups, such as bread. Bread is a major source of iodine in many countries as bread flour is often enriched with iodized salt.
For sufficient iodine intake, the easiest strategy is to use iodized salt for home cooking.
Iron deficiency is a very common problem among pregnant women. Luckily, iron status is routinely checked by obstetricians. Iron supplements are very often prescribed to pregnant women. Nevertheless, it is good to know what good sources of dietary iron are.
The absorption of iron by the body depends directly on the source of dietary iron: it can be heme and non-heme. Heme iron is found exclusively in animal products and is better absorbed by the body. Non-heme iron is found in both animal and plant foods and is absorbed worse. However, it has been observed that the body of vegetarians adapts and absorbs non-heme iron much better than the body of carnivores.
Concomitant use of iron with vitamin C improves the body’s absorption of iron. Therefore, it is good to add fruits and vegetables (which are a good source of vitamin C) to all meals if possible.
Vitamin B12 is found almost exclusively in animal products: meat, fish, dairy products, eggs.
A vegan pregnant woman needs to supplement B12 daily and/or use fortified foods. The recommended dosage for supplementation is 2.6 mcg/daily. If you want to learn about B12, please read this article.