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A dilemma of vegetarian mothers in Nepal

vegetarian dishes on table
Photo: Pexels/ Ella Olsson

Do you eat eggs?

This is the most frequent question I have been asked.

The inclusion of eggs in vegetarian food has been controversial. We will generally come across lacto-vegetarian (who accept milk and not eggs) and lacto-ovo-vegetarian (who accept both milk and eggs) people in the Nepali community.

The number of people transitioning their diet to vegetarianism and veganism is increasing.  The transition is highly popular among the youth, women and city dwellers. But, they have to face several such questions in their daily life. Becoming a vegetarian mother in Nepal further increases the chance of being asked such questions. To avoid this, potential and actual vegetarian mothers should be provided with the right information.

Vegetarianism and de-vegetarianism

While some have not eaten meat since their birth, some make the decision to quit later in life. Further, their decision to quit is based on one or more reasons such as ethical grounds, spiritual and religious beliefs, socio-economic conditions, environmental and health concerns.

As they have reasons to quit, many others have reasons to start also. The timeline of staying in a herbivore zone ranges from months to years in one’s life. Many individuals decide to return to their old food habits for several whys and wherefores such as health, personal choice, taste, pressure from family etc. The reasons are different for different individuals irrespective of the same decision.

Vegetarian mothers in Nepal

In Nepal, many vegetarian women are seen returning to non-vegetarianism during their pregnancy and breastfeeding.

Trying to continue vegetarianism during pregnancy and the lactating period has been pushed into a dilemma, considering a lack of uncertainty about a vegetarian diet sufficing the energy, protein and micronutrients requirements for the expecting mothers and their children. The dilemma is affected by a deficiency of validation of information from friends, family and relatives. The fulfilment of nutrient requirements is fundamental for both the mother and her foetus and this has been well acknowledged and supported by society.

Another reason for “relapse” could be craving.

Probably since ancient times, the pregnant women’s appetite includes meat in larger quantities than her other regular days, except for some ethnic groups, where meat consumption has been abolished. The societal trend has been there to feed her meat every day or twice a day or in every meal while the rest of the family members eat a portion once or twice a week. The cultural belief that meat should be a part of the diet during the pregnant and breastfeeding stages has been passed on from previous generations to today’s generation. For such people, it is difficult to adopt a new diet pattern all of a sudden, especially when it comes to the most sensitive and subtle phase of life.

Their caretakers such as husbands, mothers and mothers-in-law are unsure about attaining the nutritional needs within a herbivore diet for gaining weight during pregnancy and breastfeeding and often pressurise their wife, daughter and daughter-in-law to return to the omnivorous stage. Apart from their lack of knowledge, they also have no or limited idea of the kinds of vegetarian food that could be served, especially during breastfeeding. These concerns accumulate one above another, changing the thought processes.

During such situations, considering the health of both the mother and the child, one cannot prevent any woman from turning to non-vegetarianism. In some cases, this return could be a convenient solution for both the mother as well as her caretaker. The thought processes reach a decision and willingly or unwillingly, a decision is chosen. Some decide on their own; some are advised by their health workers; some are pressured by their family members.

Crucial concern

Now, the main concern over this issue is whether a vegetarian diet is able to provide pregnant and lactating mothers with adequate nutritional needs for their and their child’s good health. The answer is yes.

The vegetarian mother has to choose to eat a variety and plenty of food from all food groups along with essential supplements that do not lack energy, protein, vitamin and minerals requirements. She should pay special attention to receiving enough protein, vitamin B12, calcium, vitamin D, zinc, iron and omega-3 fatty acid. The consultation with a health worker is necessary to understand her health and nutritional status since every individual is different and has different physiology. Most importantly, planning a proper vegetarian diet is essential.

Only a properly planned vegetarian diet has benefits for a vegetarian mother. In fact, vegetarian mothers end up consuming more portions of cereals, nuts, legumes, fruits and vegetables. Improvement in general health, lowering cholesterol levels, prevention from overweight and obesity, reduction in the risk of developing gestational diabetes (diabetes during pregnancy) are some of the pros that vegetarian mothers can enjoy. This also applies to vegetarians in general.

The adoption of a vegetarian dietary pattern during pregnancy must be regarded as a situation that may be associated with some risks and benefits for the vegetarian mother and the foetus. For instance, when the appetite of the expecting vegetarian mother is low or they do not have access to a variety of food, they might miss fulfilling the recommended dietary requirement of nutrients, especially vitamins and minerals. The consequences of that also could be moderate to severe health problems and are faced by both newborns and mothers.

A personal choice should be the option for those who want to continue vegetarianism. A decision to embrace vegetarianism during pregnancy and lactating period should be supported, but regular visits to nutritional counselling is a must. The support from family members could help vegetarian mothers not only in pursuing the diet form they choose but also in reducing the stress resulting from the dilemma and leading to embracing them the most important days of their lives.

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Nepali is a public health professional based in Kathmandu.

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