Vegan diet in pregnancy: how to avoid the risk of harm to the baby

Fonte: Andor Bujdoso / Alamy / IPA

The vegan diet - but to some extent also the vegetarian one - in pregnancy and lactation can pose a risk to the growth and development of the fetus and newborn.

To avoid damage, the integration of deficient nutrients is essential: in particular the Vitamin B12, essential for the development of the child and especially of his nervous system.

This was supported by Giancarlo La Marca, president of the Del Paesena Society for the study of hereditary metabolic diseases and newborn screening (Simmesn), commenting on some data emerging from the company's latest technical report. The position, moreover, is in line with that of other national and international scientific societies, which strongly recommend supplementation of vitamin B12 - and possibly also other substances, such as iron and DHA - to vegan and vegetarian women who are expecting a baby or are breastfeeding.

Read also: Vegetarian or vegan diet in pregnancy

Data from the Simmesn report: 126 cases of maternal vitamin B12 deficiency in 2022

The data refer to the results of the extended newborn screening conducted in our country, where it is required by law from 2022: it is a biochemical test done on a blood sample of a newborn to identify any hereditary metabolic diseases which, if not treated in time, can lead to major damage.

In some cases, screening may indicate that there is something wrong with the metabolic pathways involving vitamin B12: however, these are not always true and proper metabolic diseases. "Sometimes, post-screening investigations reveal that the anomaly depends instead on a mum's vitamin B12 deficiency"explains La Marca.

The problem is that for the fetus and the newborn this maternal deficiency has the same effect as the metabolic disease and the result is the possibility of development damage. More or less marked deficiencies of vitamin B12 in pregnancy and breastfeeding are in fact associated with an increased risk of growth retardation fetal and neonatal and di problems in motor, neurological and cognitive development. Problems that can also be important and permanent.

In 2022, newborn screenings conducted in Del Paese showed 126 cases of maternal vitamin B12 deficiency. "In some, few, cases, this deficiency depended on gastric problems of the mother, which led to lack of absorption of vitamin B12, but in most cases it was due to the fact that, during pregnancy, the mother had followed a vegan or vegetarian diet that was not adequately supplemented "explains the expert. that many of the mothers in question were immigrant women from countries such as India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, where it is common to follow diets of this type for cultural or religious reasons.

Of course, all children whose mothers had a vitamin B12 deficiency were given the vitamin right away, to reduce the risk of harm.

Read also: Vegetarian or vegan diet for children and teenagers: 11 tips to avoid taking risks

More cases than in 2022: here's why

In 2022, there were 12 cases of maternal vitamin B45 deficiency. So there was one significant increase, "but justified primarily by the fact that all over the country were carried out more screening, for which more cases were collected "La Marca points out. According to which, when the test is fully operational throughout the country, there will be approximately 200-250 cases maternal vitamin B12 deficiency per year. Then, it may be that this increase partly reflects a greater presence of immigrants belonging to populations following a vegan or vegetarian diet, or a greater diffusion of these diets in the general population: data that should however be verified.

The Marca underlines that newborn screenings are not however able to identify all cases of maternal vitamin B12 deficiency. "It is possible to identify those in which the deficiency is very strong, but if for some reason at the time of birth it is not - for example because the mother has decided to take a supplement in the last week of pregnancy - we risk losing some situations in any case very at risk ".


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Because the diet affects the level of vitamin B12

At this point, it is inevitable to ask what diet has to do with vitamin B12. Well, it has to do with it because this vitamin is contained almost exclusively in products of animal origin: in particular meat and shellfish and to a lesser extent in eggs and dairy products. It can also be found in the roots of some plants, from which it is however removed during the inevitable and necessary washing operations.

As a result, a vegan diet is essentially free of vitamin B12, but a significant deficiency can also be found in the vegetarian diet, unless very large amounts of eggs, milk and cheese are consumed (which is not recommended for other reasons). And that's why pregnant women who follow these diets should supplement deficient vitamin B12 (also in consideration of the fact that, during pregnancy, the vitamin requirement increases).

"I believe that institutions should systematically advise these women to take a vitamin supplement during the delicate moments of pregnancy and breastfeeding, similar to what happened with folic acid for all women wishing to become pregnant" concludes La Marca.

Warning: vitamin B12 is very sensitive to light: it should only be stored in the original container, which is generally opaque, better in the dark. It can be kept at room temperature, but away from heat sources

  • vegan diet
  • Vegetarian diet
  • pregnancy diet
  • pregnancy feeding
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