“But, how are you going to get enough protein?”
I never asked for an opinion about my diet. But when we were told to submit dietary requirements before our office Christmas party, they began flowing in.
Suddenly, my co-workers were experts in nutritional health. They diagnosed my 3pm coffee habit as A Sign Of Low Iron. My falafel salad became an opportunity to remind me I’d be hungry in an hour. I felt like a science experiment with my lunch order under the microscope.
Although plant-based cafes and alternative meat products are more common than ever, following a vegetarian or vegan diet still incites scrutiny. The nutritional value of the diet is hotly debated, often by those who’ve been meat-eaters their entire lives. Swapping t-bone steak for tofu prompts critique, as if those who choose the latter are taking the Higher Ground.
But external judgement aside, how does our diet impact our fertility? Does going meat-free reduce our chances of a healthy pregnancy? And what practical steps can we take to ensure we’re maintaining a balanced, nutrient-dense diet?
What’s all the fuss about vegetarian and vegan diets?
Ditching meat and animal products is nothing new. But in the past few decades, the numbers of us going plant-based have been steadily on the rise. The latest stats from Roy Morgan reveal over 2.5 million Aussies are now almost entirely vegetarian (that’s 12.1% of the country’s population).
There’s good reason for this, with studies sharing the benefits of a meat-free diet, including:
● Lowering our risk of cancer
● Lower instances of obesity
● Reduced risk of hypertension (high blood pressure)
● Decreasing our risk of type 2 diabetes
But it’s not just health benefits that are causing so many of us to skip the meat aisle.
Recent studies have shown the environmental benefits of going plant-based. One study by Oxford Martin School researchers found that if the globe switched a vegan diet by 2050, we’d save 8 million lives, cut greenhouse gas emissions by two-thirds and save USD$1.5 trillion (AUD$2.2 trillion) in healthcare-related savings and avoided climate damage costs.
And for those of us switching for ethical reasons, the stats are staggering. Over 1 billion animals are killed every year for food in the UK alone. Coupled with the increased media coverage of live exports and the treatment of animals, reducing our meat intake has become an attractive option for many.
But, for those starting a family, how does what we eat impact our ability to conceive a healthy baby?
What is the link between diet and conceiving?
It might seem like a strange analogy to make, but think of pregnancy like baking a cake. "Bun in the oven" jokes aside, these processes actually have a bunch of similarities.
If we don’t take the time to read the recipe and swing by the grocery store before we start, we’re thwarting our chances of baking glory. Sure, we can dive into the back of our pantry and cobble together most of the stuff we’ll need. Gluten-free flour can be swapped for self-raising flour, right? Surely maple syrup and honey are the same? And who will actually tell if we swap full cream for almond milk? But every small decision we make has a big impact on the final product.
When it comes to conceiving, the health of our bodies play a huge role in shaping the health of our potential offspring. And understanding how to maintain a balanced, nutrient-dense diet is an essential part of that. In fact, studies have shown that women who follow a balanced diet during pregnancy reduce the chances of their babies developing chronic conditions (such as obesity, diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and neurodevelopmental delays).
In the past few years, the number of studies investigating the link between diet and fertility has grown significantly. A recent study from researchers at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health and Harvard Medical School reviewed a sample of these studies, and drew a few common conclusions.
Ultimately, women trying to conceive naturally (a.k.a. without IVF or other assistive reproductive technologies) saw a positive impact on fertility linked with nutrients such as folic acid, vitamin B12, omega-3 fatty acids when following healthy diets (such as the Mediterranean diet).
Unsurprisingly, trans fats and diets heavy in red or processed meats, sweets, and sugary drinks were linked to negative effects on fertility. Sounds like common sense, right? But what about the link between meat consumption and fertility?
Is a vegetarian or vegan diet safe when trying for a baby?
Following a meat-free diet is safe before and during pregnancy, but there are a few important factors to bear in mind. Although there are benefits to following a meat-free diet, there are also important nutritional trends to acknowledge. In some cases, plant-based diets can be linked to deficiencies in certain proteins, iron, vitamin D, calcium, iodine, omega-3 and vitamin B12.
Why is this important? Research has shown that key vitamins such as B12 are essential in preventing nerve damage, with deficiencies linked to long-term irreversible symptoms (such as numbness) and even an increased risk of stroke. It’s recommended that we consume 1.5 micrograms of B12 daily, with this vitamin naturally found in meat, fish, eggs and dairy products.
However, there’s a simple fix. For vegetarians or vegans, taking a B12 supplement is an easy way to ensure healthy nutrient levels. This is particularly important when trying to conceive, when pregnant and when breastfeeding, as a B12 deficiency can interfere with normal brain development and increase the chances of conditions such as neuropathy.
Iron is also a hot topic when it comes to diet and fertility. And it’s essential for healthy development, as it works to carry oxygen through the bloodstream and aid the growth of yet-to-be-born bubs.
When it comes to iron, meat-free eaters should remember to source these important vitamins from alternative sources such as:
● Dark leafy greens
● Wholemeal bread
● Eggs (for vegetarian)
● Fortified breakfast cereals (which included added iron)
● Dried fruits (such as apricots)
As for protein, it’s important for vegetarians and vegans to understand where we can source these nutrients from (while still avoiding steak).
Protein is essential for building and repairing muscles and bones and the production of healthy hormones and enzymes. Although animal products are most commonly known as sources for protein, there are plenty of vego-friendly options including:
● Soy products (such as tofu and tempeh)
● Plant proteins (such as beans, lentils, nuts and whole grains)
What steps should vegetarians and vegans take when trying to conceive?
With all of this in mind, there are steps we can take to prepare our bodies for pregnancy (even while following a plant-based diet). It all comes down to planning and preparation.
Research shows that women who have a strong understanding of the key nutrient balances required (and how to curb any possible deficiencies) are able to maintain proper nutrition before and during pregnancy.
To help ensure you’re getting all the vitamins and nutrients you need, mums-to-be are encouraged to speak with their GP who can help advise the best course of action. In many cases, taking a prenatal daily vitamin will be recommended in the weeks and months leading up to conceiving.
As iron is super important to a baby’s development, some women may be advised to take an iron supplement to ensure optimal vitamin levels before and during pregnancy. Plus, a higher dose of
folate or folic acid (another key vitamin needed for healthy development) may also be recommended in the months leading up to pregnancy.
If you’re following a vegetarian and vegan diet, make sure to book in to speak with your GP prior to conceiving to understand what diet changes and supplements may be needed to maximise your chances of success.
After feeling tired for weeks (and with my co-worker’s voices running through my head), I booked in for a blood test. Convinced I was deficient in something, the results surprised me. All my levels were normal. But, I only discovered that after visiting my GP.
Seeking professional guidance is essential to finding out the best course of action for your body. Whether you’re starting to go meat-free, have been vegan for years, or are somewhere in between, have a chat with your doctor before trying to conceive to ensure you’re in the best possible position to ensure a healthy pregnancy.