Hélène Defossez is an author who specializes in the fields of nutrition, as well as environmental and animal welfare. She is also a dear friend of mine and the happy mum of beautiful two-year-old Johanna. Although I am not vegetarian, a lot of the topics that she covered in her book – the first pregnancy guide for vegetarian and vegan mothers-to-be written in French, echoed. I don’t like to eat meat but I tend to be iron-deficient, and work in an athletic environment so my protein and iron needs are higher than those of most people. Hélène was kind enough to answer some of my questions, and recommend a few books in English for those of you who are not (yet?) lucky enough to read this last piece of hers…
Peruse this interview -and read her book- if you would like to:
- Ensure your protein, iron, and many other mineral/vitamin needs are met throughout pregnancy
- Find out about nutrition tips to enjoy those 9 months (i.e. how to tame nausea and cravings)
- Learn what exactly it is that you will need when your baby arrives. A « green » mum, Hélène explains how to organize your baby’s room with vintage yet quality items. Great if you are on a budget!
ON BEING VEGETARIAN, HELENE’S APPROACH TO THE WORLD, AND MOTHERHOOD / Before we get started on the book itself, can you tell us if you feel like your vegetarian approach to the world has helped you embrace motherhood in any way?
Well first of all, thank you for giving me an opportunity to discuss this major topic on your lovely blog!
Being vegetarian has played a huge role in shaping the mother I am today. It guides most of the critical decisions I make. It is the reason why I became so health conscious and a sort of a nutrition « expert » though nutrition was not the field I training in to begin with. The knowledge I acquired over time empowered me and gave me the strength to stick to my choices despite acute criticism.
What I did not realize before getting pregnant was how badly the woman’s body can be treated. In modern medicine, you are subjected to so many tests during your pregnancy that at times you feel like it isn’t really yours anymore. Pregnancy is safer than it used to be, true. But I believe it is important to experience it as an empowering time, and remain capable of making conscious choices, not just feel like you have to follow the many and diverging opinions doctors have.
Also, being vegetarian is a philosophy that comes with strong values and promotes non violence and the respect of all lives so as I like to phrase it, I believe vegetarian mothers are special: they are giving life without taking lives.
ON IRON DEFICIENCY / Iron deficiency is common in pregnant women. And a lot of ladies are scared of becoming even more iron-deficient if they stop eating meat. What would you tell a mum-to-be with such concerns to alleviate their fears?
I would tell them that iron deficiency is not a vegetarian problem, it is a problem that affects women at many stages of their lives. I would also tell them they need to overcome their fear through knowledge. When you have a clear idea of what iron is, where and how you can find it in a plant-based diet, the fear vanishes. There are so many vegetable sources of iron out there that they will realize that it is not difficult to meet your daily requirements. Just google « vegetable sources of iron » and you will get hundreds of charts!
When I was a teenager I was not eating well and my body asked a lot of me. I ended up being iron deficient. Over time I learned how to eat properly and never had to face this problem again. When my baby was born, I lost a fair amount of blood and I got tested to see if I needed iron supplements to refuel. Guess what? I didn’t! That is because I had known for a long time how to get my iron from vegetable sources. To give you an example: my bag of almonds and dried fruit never left my bedside at the clinic!
So again: the more educated about nutrition you become, the more comfortable you will feel about your food choices.
Finally, I would advise women to take regular blood tests to check their iron levels, that’s what most doctors recommend anyway. When you realize that you are doing fine, you will feel more confident.
ON THE LUCKY IRON FISH / You mention Professor Christopher Charles and his beautiful initiative to solve iron deficiency issues in Cambodia. Can you tell us a little bit more about his Lucky Iron Fish and how you came to hear about it? Have you ever used it yourself?
I came across this brilliant initiative while doing research for the book. The fish is just a new twist on the old trick of cooking in an iron pot to boost your iron supplies. And I do use it! What I like most about it is that it is the perfect illustration of how amply available iron is on our planet, and how easy it is to consume it.
A word of caution though… We always mention how iron deficiency is an issue. Seldom do we hear that having levels of iron that are too high in your body can be toxic. In fact, it seems that the low storage of iron in vegetarians might be one of the reason why they are less prone to a wide range of diseases. So keep in mind that iron is vital but, you know the saying: « Too much of a good thing… ».
Last but not least, what is also great about this initiative is that it is philanthropic: when you buy a fish, the organization provides a Cambodian family with one. So what’s not to love about that?
ON SOUPS AND SMOOTHIES / What tip from the book did you use most during your own pregnancy?
Soups and smoothies! I still rely on them today. I realized that it was an easy way to make sure you get all the nutrients you need when you do not have time to come up with fancy menus. When I was pregnant, smoothies helped me get my green veggies everyday, whilst tricking the aversion that I felt for them at the time.
These days, I try to make fresh homemade soup for the whole family on a daily basis. I found out that our little kids’ appetites fluctuate massively, and sometimes find it difficult to make sure that my daughter has gotten all of the nutrients her little growing body needs. So I try to throw them in the batch: root vegetables, leafy greens, legumes like chickpeas, lentils or beans, seaweed for iodine supply, and sometimes I throw my little iron fish in it to provide extra iron!
I also try to make it fun, using reusable metal straws for her to drink from. She loves it, and even tends to ask for it for breakfast as well.
ON BOOKS IN ENGLISH / Since your book has not translated in English yet, what would you recommend English-speaking vegetarian mums-to-be read?
3 books can be particularly useful:
- Best-seller Your vegetarian pregnancy by Dr Holly Roberts, an American obstetrician-gynecologist. The last edition is a slightly dated (2003) but it is a good reference and the tips you may find perusing it remain relevant to this day.
- Vegan pregnancy survivor guide by Sayward Rebhal is a shorter book full of useful tips, especially for vegan mums-to-be. Sayward also happens to be a fantastic and inspiring blogger (check out Bonzai Aprodite), and a passionate advocate of vegan healthy living.
- I find Alicia Silverstone’s approach very interesting. Her beautiful book called The Kind Mamma goes way beyond pregnancy to discuss fertility issues and how to raise conscious kids.
I am currently working on getting my book translated into English so I hope it will happen soon. I’ll make sure to keep you posted! In the meantime, those who are interested in vegetarianism, and the rationale behind that choice can check out my book A Plate of Resistance (Lantern Books, 2013).
You can learn more about Hélène’s publications on www.helenedefossez.fr