When it comes to preparing for baby-making, a vegetarian diet for fertility has its challenges. This is especially so if you're vegan.
I have worked with countless vegan and vegetarian women in my practice who found their plant-based food choices were no longer adequate when they were trying to conceive or to maintain a healthy pregnancy and postpartum recovery.
It’s not to say it can’t be done, but extra care is needed to make sure you get it right.
While most criticism of a vegetarian diet is around whether you’re getting enough protein, in fact, protein is not usually the biggest worry since most health-conscious herbivores know they need to piece together enough protein from grains, beans, nuts, etc.
The bigger concern is getting enough healthy fat, cholesterol, and fat-soluble vitamins – especially D, A, and K2.
While it's commonly believed that they can be supplied from plant sources (vitamin A in carrots, zinc in grains, and fortified orange juice for vitamin D as examples) these nutrients are far more useful to the body from animal sources. For example, you'll find vitamin A in liver, zinc in oysters, and vitamin D from fermented cod liver oil and pastured lard.
If consuming animal foods for the sake of optimizing your fertility is off the table, then use these guidelines to maximize the benefits of your vegetarian diet:
10 ways to optimize a vegetarian diet for fertility & pregnancy
#1 – An ovo-lacto diet is the best vegetarian option if you are trying to optimize fertility or are pregnant or nursing. Dairy and eggs will provide you with essential fat, cholesterol, fat-soluble vitamins, and protein. Aim for at least two eggs per day and 4 cups of milk or equivalent dairy products – all should be from pasture-raised animals. If you are open to eating fish and/or other seafood, now’s the time to do so!
#2 – Get extra fat by consuming coconut (oil, cream, milk, and meat from coconuts), well-sourced palm oil, and avocados daily.
#3 – Properly prepare your grains, legumes, seeds, and nuts by souring, soaking or sprouting. This will ensure that your body has access to their full nutritional profile and that anti-nutrients do not block absorption of minerals from the rest of your food. Read more about properly preparing grains here.
#4 – Only consume fermented soy such as tempeh, miso, and unpasteurized soy sauce. Read more about the dangers of soy here.
#5 – Incorporate cultured foods including fermented vegetables, condiments, and drinks daily. Read why cultured foods are important here.
#6 – Get enough vitamin D. The best way to make sure you're getting enough vitamin D is to have your blood levels tested. The most effective way to get this essential, fat-soluble vitamin is with regular sun exposure. If 20 minutes per day on most of your skin without sunscreen is not a option, read more about getting vitamin D here.
#7 – Eat natto (fermented soy beans) or take a Vitamin K2 supplement. Ideally you will get vitamin K2 from dairy from grass fed cows. This little known nutrient is important for calcium distribution – an essential function when you're asking your body to grow a small human's teeth and bone. Read more about vitamin K2 here.
#8 – Vitamin A is essential for fetal growth and tissue maintenance and for supporting a mother's own metabolism. Since the conversion of beta-carotene to true vitamin A is often not adequate (source), those committed to a vegetarian diet may find themselves lacking in this important nutrient for baby making. Read about vitamin A toxicity here.
#9 – If you don't already, take a Vitamin B12 supplement. This nutrient is necessary to produce red blood cells and prevent anemia. Found almost exclusively in animal products, it is impossible to get enough B-12 on a vegan diet alone. Vitamin B-12 deficiency may go undetected in vegans because the vegan diet is rich in folate, which may mask deficiency in vitamin B-12 until severe problems occur.
#10 – Take an omega-3 supplement. If you are willing to do a fermented cod liver oil supplement, it will provide you with omega-3’s, plus fat soluble vitamins D and A that you cannot get from plant sources. The best vegan option is from microalgae which can provide all three essential fatty acids (DHA, EPA, and ALA). Source
Other vegetarian options for omega 3′s include flax, hemp, walnut and algae. These sources contain the fatty acid ALA which ideally can convert to DHA and EPA, however studies show that the human body does not convert ALA to EPA and DHA well. (source)
Unless you're extremely deficient, it's possible that once pregnant, your baby will get all of the nutrients he or she needs regardless of what you eat – BUT if you're not consuming the right foods, the placenta will demand calcium from your bones, fatty acids from your brain, and other nutrients it needs from YOUR body, leaving you feeling less than wonderful as your baby grows and after baby is born.
So follow these steps above to optimize your vegetarian diet for fertility, pregnancy and beyond for the health of your child and yourself.