A new study has revealed that pregnant women who follow vegan diets may have higher risks of developing preeclampsia and delivering low birth weight babies, compared with women who consume animal products. The study, published in the journal Acta Obstetricia et Gynecologica Scandinavica, examined the dietary patterns and pregnancy outcomes of 66,739 women from the Danish National Birth Cohort.
What is preeclampsia and why is it dangerous?
Preeclampsia is a pregnancy complication that is characterized by high blood pressure and signs of damage to other organs, such as the kidneys or liver. It usually occurs after the 20th week of pregnancy and can lead to serious complications for both the mother and the baby, such as seizures, stroke, organ failure, premature birth, and low birth weight. Preeclampsia affects about 5% of pregnant women worldwide and is one of the leading causes of maternal and neonatal mortality and morbidity.
What are the different types of vegetarian diets and how do they differ in protein and micronutrient intake?
Vegetarian diets are those that exclude meat, poultry, and fish, but may include other animal products, such as eggs and dairy. Vegan diets are a subset of vegetarian diets that exclude all animal products, including eggs, dairy, honey, and gelatin. According to the study, 65,872 women identified themselves as omnivorous, 666 as fish/poultry vegetarians, 183 as lacto/ovo vegetarians (who consume eggs and dairy), and 18 as vegans.
The study found that protein intake was lower among lacto/ovo vegetarians (13.3%) and vegans (10.4%) compared with omnivorous participants (15.4%). Protein is essential for the growth and development of the fetus and the placenta, as well as for maintaining the mother’s blood volume and muscle mass. The recommended dietary allowance (RDA) for protein during pregnancy is 71 grams per day, which can be met by consuming a variety of plant and animal sources.
The study also found that micronutrient intake was much lower among vegans, especially for vitamin B12, vitamin D, calcium, iron, zinc, and iodine. These micronutrients are important for the proper functioning of the nervous system, the immune system, the bone health, the blood formation, and the thyroid function of both the mother and the baby. The RDA for these micronutrients varies depending on the age and the stage of pregnancy, and can be met by consuming fortified foods, supplements, or animal products.
What are the main findings and implications of the study?
The study found that compared with omnivorous mothers, vegan mothers had a higher prevalence of preeclampsia (9.4% vs. 3.1%) and their newborns weighed an average of 240 grams less (3,230 grams vs. 3,470 grams). The study also found that fish/poultry vegetarians had a lower prevalence of preeclampsia (1.9%) and their newborns weighed an average of 60 grams more (3,530 grams) than omnivorous mothers. There were no significant differences in the pregnancy outcomes of lacto/ovo vegetarians and omnivorous mothers.
The study suggests that different types of vegetarian diets may have different effects on pregnancy and birth outcomes, depending on the quality and quantity of protein and micronutrient intake. The study also suggests that vegan diets may pose higher risks for pregnant women and their babies, unless they are carefully planned and supplemented. The study authors recommend further research to explore the possible causal mechanisms and to strengthen the basis for dietary recommendations.
How can pregnant women follow a healthy vegetarian or vegan diet?
Pregnant women who follow vegetarian or vegan diets can still have healthy pregnancies and babies, as long as they pay attention to their nutritional needs and consult their health care providers. Some tips for following a healthy vegetarian or vegan diet during pregnancy are:
- Eat a variety of plant foods, such as whole grains, legumes, nuts, seeds, fruits, and vegetables, to ensure adequate intake of protein, fiber, antioxidants, and phytochemicals.
- Choose fortified foods or supplements that provide adequate amounts of vitamin B12, vitamin D, calcium, iron, zinc, and iodine, or consume animal products that are rich in these micronutrients.
- Monitor your blood pressure and urine protein levels regularly and report any signs or symptoms of preeclampsia, such as headaches, blurred vision, swelling, or abdominal pain, to your health care provider.
- Monitor your weight gain and your baby’s growth and development through prenatal visits and ultrasounds, and follow the advice of your health care provider regarding any dietary or lifestyle modifications.