What are your thoughts on not eating meat while pregnant? (I am a vegetarian.) What other foods/beverages/supplements do you think are or aren’t necessary or beneficial?
I’m so glad you asked, Christin! And by the end of this post I hope you still are, too. Let’s jump in, shall we?
One-Thousand, Six-Hundred & Seventy-Seven Days Ago . . .
I peed on a stick. But just a little, because I was holding the rest for the backup tests! A trip to Walgreens and two tests later it was official. A tiny little being – my baby – was going to grow to watermelon proportions and then try to exit an area no wider than a garden hose, and I needed olive juice. Pronto.
It’s funny looking back, but yeah, food was the first thing that made me feel like a mother. There were BLECH!!! days and MOREMOREMORE!!! days, but I welcomed each craving and aversion as my body’s sacred wisdom about how, when, and what to eat.
But What If I’m Craving Doritos & Ding Dongs?
Hmmm . . . I did make that sound a little too easy, didn’t I? Sadly, the “experts” spread so much dietary misinformation that we – and our bodies – are thoroughly confused about what a healthy pregnancy and breastfeeding relationship looks like. For example, in their effort to encourage every mother to breastfeed some advocates say that baby will get “all they need” from breast milk even when the mother’s diet is poor.
That is simply not the case, as was demonstrated in the very public prosecution of a vegan couple whose breastfed baby died from critical deficiencies in vitamins B12 an A. I hesitate to mention this because it is not my intent to drag these parents through the mud. However, I think this tragedy perfectly illustrates the impact of nutritional misinformation on real life outcomes. Like what, you ask?
Myth #1: Protein is Protein
Say you’re two months pregnant (it’s fun to pretend, right?!?!?). By now baby is about the size of a kidney bean with earlobes and cute – albeit slightly webbed – little fingers. You’re eating protein everyday because you know it is the fundamental building block baby needs to grow some eyebrows so he/she won’t look permanently surprised. But are vegetable proteins as good as animal-based proteins?
In a word, no.
Our bodies synthesize protein by breaking apart amino acids from food and then reassembling them for specific tasks. Of the twenty amino acids needed to form protein our bodies can make twelve “on site” (children can only make 11). The rest we have to get from food. Vegetable proteins are “incomplete,” meaning that they contain only a few of the essential amino acids needed. Because the body cannot warehouse protein like it does fat, we need to stock up every. single. day. And unlike animal-based proteins that have everything we need wrapped up in just the right proportions, incomplete proteins simply don’t cut it.
“Not only do we need all the eight (nine for children) essential amino acids in our diet, we also need them in our body in just the right proportions and at the same time. It does little good taking in a few essential amino acids one day and getting the others later in the week. The body simply cannot make effective use of them unless it has them all together at one time. Missing one of the essential amino acids is like trying to read a novel in which every ninth page is missing, except that our imaginations can fill in the plot line whereas our bodies cannot fill in the missing amino acid,” says research and author Dr. Kummerow in his article for the Wise Traditions Magazine, “Protein: Building Blocks of The Body.” (emphasis mine)
Is it possible to create complete proteins with a vegetarian diet? Yes, but it is vital to avoid soy AND you’ll need to carefully measure and combine foods to provide the full range of amino acids. And because plant-based sources have lower concentrations of amino acids overall you’ll also need to eat much, MUCH more than – say – a piece of chicken that contains all nine in high concentrations. This unfortunately, leaves very little room in the belly for other important nutrients!
Myth #2: Carrots Contain Vitamin A
Nutrition labels often say that a food has X amount of Vitamin A, when what they really mean is that it has beta carotene. Contrary to popular belief, beta carotene is NOT the same as Vitamin A. It is a precursor . . .and a poor one at that! True bioavailable Vitamin A is found only in animal products such as fermented cod liver oil, pastured butter, egg yolks, liver, and seafood.
Why do we need Vitamin A?
“In Nutrition and Physical Degeneration, Price described the early work on vitamin A deficiency during pregnancy and the preconception period. In diverse species of laboratory animals, this deficiency produced spontaneous abortion; prolonged labor and death of the mother and her offspring during labor; eye defects including the complete absence of eyes; defects of the snout, dental arches and lips; displacement of internal organs including the kidneys, ovaries and testes; and deafness due to degeneration of the nervous system.”
We now know that vitamin A is necessary for the differentiation and patterning of all of the cells, tissues, and organs within the developing body. It is especially important for the development of the communication systems between the sense organs and the brain. Even mild vitamin A deficiency compromises the number of functional units called nephrons in the kidneys, which could predispose a person to poor kidney function later in life.
Just like with protein, it IS possible to get vitamin A from carrots. But only if you eat them by the pound and have flawless enzymatic function. Even then, I am very doubtful that anyone would be able to obtain optimal quantities. For example, the Weston A. Price foundation recommends 20,000 IU a day for pregnant women (4). In a head-to-head comparison, 100 grams of carrots yields roughly 1,145IU of Vitamin A, whereas 100 grams of beef liver yields 25,800.³ One-hundred grams of carrots is about 2/3 cup, so you’d have to eat about 15 cups of carrots per day to meet the recommendation! (assuming the conversion from betacarotene can be made)
After baby is born, vegetarian parents need to supplement their children with bioavailable (animal-based) Vitamin A because their immature digestive systems are unable to make the betacarotene/Vitamin A conversion¹. For more information and dosage recommendations, check out The Vitamin A Saga.
Myth #3: Baby Will “Steal” To Get What They Need From Mama
Okay, that’s actually true, but **only** if mama has it to give. In a 2001 study of North American women, researchers found that their breast milk did not meet the minimum requirements for vitamin D, which is found in it’s most bioavailable form in animal-based foods like lard, fish, cod liver oil, and caviar. And “[w]hile protein levels in human milk remain constant at about 11 percent under various conditions, levels of fat and lactose—both essential for the development of the nervous system—vary widely,” says the Weston A. Price Foundation.
In addition to being a critical factor in developing baby’s bone structure, Vitamin D also has protective effects against Whooping Cough and has been shown to virtually eradicate the risk of type 1 diabetes if given during the first year of life.² It also promotes proper hormone function. We don’t think of babies needing hormones, but actually they do! Hormones are what cause their rapid development, which is why a deficiency in Vitamin D can stunt growth. Where do we get vitamin D? In the winter months lard, liver and other animal products are the only source.
Without supplementation, pregnant women not consuming meat, fish/shellfish, or eggs by the dozen can also develop B Vitamin (aka folate, B6 & B12) deficiencies, which has been linked to neural tube defects like spina bifida.
And That Is Why . . .
In my humble – face so close to the floor I can lick the tile – opinion, vegetarianism and pregnancy are not a good match. It’s not that we can’t get some of our needs for met through plant sources, but we cannot get all of them met that way. We’d just have to eat too. much. food.
Animal-based foods, in contrast, are “nutrient dense” – meaning that small portions of these foods contain much higher concentrations of the vitamins, minerals and micronutrients we need. Incorporating raw dairy and eggs can meet some of these needs, but not all.
And while eggs and dairy contribute a lot to a nutrient-dense diet, there are certain nutrients they cannot provide to make up for a lack of meat in the diet. As we already discussed, women need about 20,000IU of Vitamin A per day while pregnant. Beef liver contains 25,800IU of Vitamin A in 100 grams, which means it knocks out an entire days recommendation in one serving. On the flipside, an egg (50 grams) only contains about 280IU, which means you’d have to eat about eighty eggs per day to get the recommended amount!
So there you go, Christin. My thoughts on vegetarianism and pregnancy. Still glad you asked?
What do YOU think???
Questions about baby nutrition? Check out my new e-book, Nourished Baby!