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Vegetarian, pregnant and healthy

by Cherie Pasion
Cherie Pasion
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on Monday, 03 September 2012
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As I type this, I am 39 weeks and 6 days pregnant.  Playing the waiting game is proving to be a good time for reflection, as I have the time and space to sit back and think about the journey over the last 10 months.

A lot of my pregnancy has been spent forward thinking, occupying my thoughts on the most natural way to birth that suited us as a couple.  (We chose HypnoBirthing, and I’ll blog about it after the birth.)  I also spent a fair amount of time researching sustainable options for the baby.   

The pregnancy, itself, has been smooth sailing – probably the most blissful time of my life to date.  My daily green-living regime seemed to complement pregnancy very well. However, probably the biggest thing I was conscious about has been my vegetarian diet - as I wanted to ensure that I was giving my cherished baby boy the best start in life as I possibly could.  

What to look out for in a vegetarian diet while pregnant?

There are a number of minerals and nutrients that do require extra consideration for those of us who are pregnant (or breastfeeding) vegetarians:

Iron 

Pregnant women need 27 milligrams of iron each day (source).  This is compared to 18 mg that non-pregnant women need.  I tried very hard to try to get this amount from my food, doing the old absorb with Vitamin C trick.  Vegetarian food high in iron include chickpeas, raw pumpkin seeds, kale, spirulina and quinoa (to name only a few).  In the end, however, I had to take supplements, as a blood test revealed my iron levels were low.  I’m not sure how much of this was diet based, as my meat-eating sister was pregnant at the same time and required iron supplements, as did many of her friends.  So possibly there were other factors that led to my iron deficiency.

Protein

This isn’t really dissimilar to any other time of life.  All balanced diets require protein, but it’s important to keep up protein intake during pregnancy.  This proved to be a challenge during the first trimester – as, like so many other women, all I wanted to eat was carbs. Luckily, however, cheese goes so well with crackers and bread! I was happy to find that quinoa was high in protein – so throughout the pregnancy I have been eating quinoa as a replacement to pasta and rice.  I also made sure I added superfoods such as chia to my daily yoghurt and had a container of nuts on my desk at work.

Vitamin B12

Again, this is always a concern for those on a vegetarian or vegan diet.  My pregnancy multi-vitamins contain B12, as do my daily dose of chia seeds, spirulina (see image to the right), which incidentally is also high in protein and iron.  I never seemed to have an issue with Vitamin B12. 

Calcium

In the last few years, I have tended to shy away from drinking milk - for various reasons.  However, during my pregnancy I have found myself drinking glasses of milk – my body seemed to ask for it.  When I didn’t drink much milk or eat a lot of yoghurt, I would wake in the middle of the night with painful cramps in my calf-muscles.  My midwives, along with internet research, suggested this was calcium deficiency.  I started drinking more milk and yep, goodbye cramps! You may be interested to know that dairy isn't necessarily the best way to consume calcium - green leafy vegetables also contain a high amount of calcium, as do chia seeds.

Omega-3

OK, this is where I must admit, I do not comply to a strict vegetarian diet.  Omega-3s are good to help the brain and nervous tissue development of the baby.  The best vegetarian source of omega-3 essential fatty acids (according to Gabriel Cousens in Conscious Eating) is flaxseeds and flaxseed oil.  Unfortunately, early on in my pregnancy it became apparent that I couldn’t stomach either.  So I have been taking fish oil supplements, ensuring that the oil is of the highest quality, sustainably-produced and mercury free.  I figured that I didn’t need to be put in a box, and if it was best for the baby – then I’d take the supplement, simple as that. 

If you are vegetarian or you want to be vegetarian and contemplating pregnancy – the best advice I can give is to trust yourself and your body – you will know what you need.  When I first became pregnant, I got a bit excited and ordered a book from Amazon about vegetarian recipes for pregnancy.  I have not tried a single recipe – the food in the book isn’t really for my palate.  I should have just trusted myself, as my inner wisdom has been enough.

Disclaimer:  the above information is just based on my experience and research only, I am not a dietician or medical practitioner.  If you have particular questions or concerns about your vegetarian diet while pregnant, I suggest you talk to your care provider.

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Athletes fueled by plants: running vegetarian

by Cherie Pasion
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on Thursday, 22 September 2011
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I ran my first half-marathon last Sunday in Sydney - fueled by plants!


Funnily enough, even today I read and hear comments about people needing meat for a complete diet and for the body to receive all the nutrients it needs.  Yet, there are many athletes out there who are running on a vegetarian, vegan or raw food diet, with top performance. 

So, who of our elite athletes are vegetarian?   According to Treehugger:

  • Bill Pearl – a four-time Mr Universe bodybuilder
  • Martina Navratilova – one of the greatest tennis players of the 20th Century (but recently gone pescetarian) 
  • Dave Scott – who holds the record for the most Iron Man World Championships (iron man consists of 2.4 mile swim, 112 mile bike ride and 26 mile marathon), 
  • Carl Lewis – who ran the 1991 World Championships as a vegetarian

I have a few favourites of my own:

  • Scott Jurek – a vegan runner who has won seven consecutive Western States 100 Mile Endurance Runs on a vegan diet. 
  • Brendan Brazier – a professional iron-man with a vegan and predominantly raw food diet.
  • Matt Frazier – an ultra-runner who blogs under “No Meat Athlete” and dropped 10 minutes of his personal best marathon time, six months after going vegetarian.  He now competes in ultra-marathon races.

What do vegetarian athletes need to look out for in their diet?

Just as there are many different reasons why a person chooses to become vegetarian, there are different categories of vegetarian diets:

Fruitarian – diet consisting of raw or dried fruits, nuts, seeds, honey and vegetable oil
Macrobiotic – excludes all animal foods, diary products and eggs, uses only unprocessed, unrefined, ‘natural’ and ‘organic’ cereals, grains and condiments such as miso and seaweed
Vegan – excludes all animal foods, dairy products and eggs.
Lacto-vegetarian – excludes all animal products and eggs
Lacto-ovo-vegetarian – excludes all animal foods, however includes milk, milk products and eggs  (which is the category I fit under)

The Australian Institute of Sport has some good nutrition tips for vegetarian athletes.

Matt Frazier keeps a blog dedicated to healthy eating for runners and has a couple of ebooks to help marathoners and half-marathoners to plan their diets in accordance to their training.

Brendan Brazier has written a well-acclaimed book called “Thrive: the Vegan Nutrition Guide to Optimal Performance in Sports and Life”.

I must admit, I didn’t follow any fancy diet plan while training for my half-marathon.  I listened to my body and what it needed.  Many days I felt sluggish, so I would up certain foods according to what worked for my body. 

Are you a vegetarian athlete or considering going vegetarian?  I’d like to hear your tips for vegetarian running and sports.

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Running soothes my soul

by Cherie Pasion
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on Thursday, 15 September 2011
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I guess this is a bit of a reflective piece on how far I have come in recent months.  Tomorrow my husband Leland and I fly down to Sydney as we're competing in a half-marathon (me) and marathon (Leland) on Sunday. 

I'm absolutely pumped, and this surprises me, as I don't remember ever feeling this excited for a sporting event (that wasn't something travel related, like trekking in the Himalayas or something).

When we first decided to enter Blackmores Sydney Running Festival, it was back in April and we were living up in Cairns.  Neither of us had been running seriously for around 10 months or so, so our fitness levels were pretty much at ground zero.

I was in a really bad headspace, as I was working in a toxic work environment which had a debilitating effect.  I remember going for training runs (struggling to run 3kms) and thinking "Each step I take makes me stronger, and when my strength grows, so I will heal."

I knew that as my body improved its strength so would my mind.  I was right!

Now, several months on, I am able to go on long runs of 15km+ with no trouble.  At some point about 6 weeks ago, when I ran 20kms for the first time, my mind broke through a mental barrier, and I realised that I could do anything I set my mind to and didn’t have to settle for anything less.

Now, once the groove really kicks in (generally around the 8km mark) my mind and body work in unity and I feel alive.  I don't run with music, instead I run in the comfortable silence of my thoughts.  On Sunday, when I am running with thousands of others between two of the world's greatest icons, I'll remember how far I have come.  From a state of demoralisation to a state of absolute freedom and strength.

Thank the heavens for running, for reminding me I'm alive and can strive for anything I put my mind to.  I know that I'll make the 21.1km on Sunday.  And that next Monday I'll be signing up for a marathon.  But most importantly, I intrinsically know that when I apply myself to any task I do, it can be achieved.  And all of those lessons were learnt while pounding the pavement along the Brisbane River.

With our good friends Egg and Dee on our last race in the Philippines, June 2010.
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