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Optimum Nutrition for Vegan Pregnancy

“A plant-based diet is a healthful choice at every stage of life, including pregnancy and breastfeeding, and a well-planned plant-based diet provides all the nutrients you and your developing baby need.”

~ Physician’s Committee for Responsible Medicine


Maybe it’s family members, neighbors, coworkers, or perhaps, even your own self-doubt. Many negative myths surround the vegan diet, and even non-pregnant people are questioned about their nutrient status. Now, whatever happens no longer affects only you. There’s another person involved: your baby.

You might find yourself faced with that nagging question:

Is a vegan diet safe during pregnancy?

Vegan diets are sometimes thought to be low in certain nutrients like B12, calcium, zinc, iron, iodine, and omega-3’s. Yet according to the American Dietetic Association, not only are well-planned vegan diets suitable for all stages of life (including pregnancy, lactation, infancy, childhood, and adolescence) they may also provide aid in the prevention of certain diseases.

The key term is well-planned. Adequate nutrient and caloric intake are crucial for attaining any potential benefits and making sure your pregnancy is as healthy as it can possibly be.

Caloric Needs

The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics recommends 340 extra daily calories during the second trimester and 450 extra daily calories during the third trimester.


BMI before pregnancy          Status                     Recommended weight gain

<18.5                                               Underweight            28-40 lbs
18.25-24.9                                      Normal                      25-35 lbs
25-29.9                                           Overweight               15-25 lbs
>30                                                  Obese                         11-20 lbs

This works out to 3-4 lbs during the first trimester and 3-4 lbs per month through the second and third trimesters.

Caloric intake should increase to 500 extra daily calories from pre-pregnancy needs during the first six months of breastfeeding and should drop to 400 extra daily calories during the second six months of breastfeeding.

Protein

Adequate protein intake is ensured by eating a diet that is rich in a wide variety of plant foods in as close to their whole state as possible, including whole grains, nuts and seeds and legumes. To ensure adequate intake of all the essential amino acids, which are the building blocks of protein, vegans should be sure to eat a wide variety of foods rich in quality protein such as whole soybeans, hemp seed, quinoa, buckwheat, and other nutritious whole foods.

During pregnancy, your body uses protein to help build cells and produce hormones for your developing child.

During the second and third trimester of pregnancy as well as during breastfeeding, the recommended daily intake of protein is at least 70 grams per day.

High protein vegan foods include:

Soybeans, tempeh and edamame (10-19g. Per 3.5 oz.)
Lentils (18g. per cup)
Beans (15 g. per cup)
Nutritional yeast (14g. per oz.)
Nuts and seeds (7-9g. per oz.)
Wild rice (7g. per cup)
Quinoa and amaranth (8-9g. per cup)

Iron

Multiple studies have shown that vegans are no more likely to suffer from iron-deficiency than non-vegans. However, mild anemia is common even in non-vegan women, and pregnant women need 27 mg. of iron daily in order to prevent anemia, a condition that can cause pre-term birth and low birth weight.

Below are some iron-rich vegan food options: 

Tofu (6.6. mg/cup)
Lentils (6.6 mg/cup),
Beans (4.5 mg/cup)
Spinach (6.4 mg/cup)
Swiss chard (4 mg/cup)

As an extra boost, make sure to eat iron-rich foods with vitamin C to increase the absorption. Avoid eating iron-rich food with tea, as that will inhibit the absorption of iron.

Ask your doctor if your prenatal vitamins should contain iron. (See conclusion for some vegan brands.)

Vitamin B12

No matter how it’s sourced, vitamin B12 is produced by microorganisms. It’s probably the most widely-popularized nutritional issue for vegans, because most nutrition professionals agree that, due to our highly-sanitized modern food production methods, this essential nutrient can no longer be found in any meaningful amount in plant diets, making fortified foods and supplements the only reliable sources. 

During pregnancy, B12 is key for fetal brain development as well as for the formation of red blood cells. A deficiency of B12 has been linked to neural tube defects. Pregnant women should aim for at least 2.56 mcg. per day.

There are three options.

  • Supplement with B12 fortified foods at least three times a day. This can include nutritional yeast and certain brands of soymilk and cereals.
  • Take a daily B12 supplement (minimum of 10 micrograms)
  • Take a weekly B12 supplement (minimum of 2000 micrograms)

Keep in mind that most standard prenatal vitamins will include this nutrient. (See conclusion for some vegan brands.)

Calcium

Contrary to popular belief, calcium isn’t too difficult to find in a vegan diet, as we can see from the fact that cows obtain all the calcium they require for their large bodies (and to feed their offspring) from a very limited plant diet. However, we do need to ensure we eat the foods that contain it, most notably leafy greens, nuts and legumes. Calcium absorption from all of these foods tends to be excellent, and of course there are also plant milks and juices that are fortified with calcium. 

Calcium helps in the formation of a baby’s heart, muscles, nerves, and bones. If not enough calcium is present in your diet, the calcium needed for your pregnancy may be leached from your bones, which has been linked to osteoporosis later in life.

Pregnant women should get at least 1000 mg of calcium daily.

Cooked Soybeans (18.5% RDI per cup)
Edamame (24% RDI per cup)
Tempeh (11% RDI per cup)
White and navy beans (13% RDI per cup)
Black beans (11% RDI per cup)
Almonds (10% RDI per ¼ cup)
Tahini (13% RDI per cup)
Amaranth (12% RDI per cup)
Teff (12% RDI per cup)
Dark leafy greens (8-14% RDI per cup)
Fortified plant milks (typically 30% RDI per cup)

Omega 3s

Omega 3s are crucial for fetal growth and development, and supplementing with omega 3s may help with depressive moods in later pregnancy and early postpartum. Pregnant women should aim for at least 200 mg. of omega 3s daily.

Algal oil is a vegan source of EPA and DHA; the other foods provide the precursors, which are converted to EPA and DHA. The following foods will provide a healthy boost of this nutrient:

Algal oil (supplements are typically 400-500 mg. of EPA and DHA)
Chia seeds (4915 mg. of ALA per oz. or 307-447% of RDI)
Brussel sprouts (135 mg. of ALA per .5 cup. or 12% RDI)
Hemp seeds (6000 mg. of ALA per oz. or 375-545% RDI)
Walnuts (2542 mg. of ALA per oz. or 159-231% RDI)
Flaxseeds (6388 mg of ALA per oz. or 400-580% RDI)

Vitamin D

Many people suggest that everyone, vegan or not, should be taking a Vitamin D supplement, because although it’s something we produce in our own bodies from exposure to sunlight on the skin, there isn’t always enough sun to ensure we produce it adequately (especially in certain locations, and especially for those who spend most of their days working indoors). Use of sunscreen diminishes Vitamin D production almost completely. 

Vitamin D is important in the development of healthy teeth and bones. Deficiency is linked to conditions such as congenital rickets, where bones become soft, causing poor growth, skeletal deformities, and bone fractures in newborns. Pregnant women should aim for 600 IU daily.

If you don’t get enough sunlight, vitamin D can be found in fortified foods such as plant milks and cereals as well as vegan vitamin D supplements.

Folate

Folate deficiency is well-known to cause neural tube defects. To prevent this, pregnant women should aim for at least 400 mcg. daily.

Legumes (131 mcg./cup)
Asparagus (134 mcg./.5 cup)
Leafy greens (58.2 mcg./cup)
Citrus fruits (55 mcg./serving)
Avocado (82 mcg. for half an avocado)
Broccoli (57 mcg./cup)
Brussel sprouts (47 mcg./.5 cup)

Iodine

Iodine is an essential mineral of which more than 30% of the worldwide population is not getting enough, and an imbalance of this nutrient can cause serious health problems, especially during pregnancy, and in children.

Although some studies suggest that vegans might be falling short on iodine, this could be because most of the population gets it through the unnatural application of iodine to clean dairy equipment. Obviously iodine is missing in the world’s soils, or we wouldn’t have iodine added to table salt for the general public. Many vegans don’t consume iodized salt, however, preferring to use sea salt and other alternatives. There are various vegan food sources of iodine, but the amount they contain depends on the soil or water in which they were grown.

If you don’t use iodized salt or fortified foods, ask your doctor about taking an iodine supplement.

Pregnant women should aim for 150 mcg. daily.

Zinc

A lack of zinc can lead to premature birth and poor fetal development. The recommended daily intake of zinc during pregnancy is 15 mg.

Firm tofu (4 mg./cup)
Hemp seeds (3 mg./oz)
Lentils (3 mg./cup)
Fortified cereals (19 mg./.75 cup)
Oatmeal (2 mg./cup)
Wild rice (2 mg./cup)
Seeds (2 mg./oz)
Black beans (2 mg./cup)

Choline

Choline is important for your growing baby’s nervous system. A pregnant woman should aim for 450 mg. of choline daily.

Soy milk (57 mg/cup.)
Tofu (70 mg./cup)
Broccoli (62 mg./cup)
Peanut butter (11 mg./2 tbsp).
Beans (30 mg./cup)
Shiitake mushrooms (115 mg./cup)
Quinoa (43 mg./cup)

Cravings

Many vegans worry about the possibility of craving meat or other animal products during pregnancy. However, contrary to popular belief, cravings are not a sign of a nutrient deficiency, so you can rest assured that they don’t suggest that your vegan diet is depriving your baby of anything. If you find yourself craving non-vegan foods during pregnancy, consider trying a vegan substitute for that food.

A quick note about nausea and vomiting

Queasiness is a common symptom in pregnancy. Some tips to cope with nausea include:

Eat smaller meals throughout the day
Avoid strong smelling foods
Eat low-fat, high-carb foods

What to Avoid

Alcohol should never be consumed during pregnancy.
Caffeine should be limited to 200-300 mg/day (the equivalent of 1-2 cups of coffee.)
Overly processed foods often lack nutrients and contain additives as well as sugars.
Unwashed produce: higher risk of bacterial contamination
Unpasteurized juice: higher risk of bacterial contamination
Raw sprouts: higher risk of bacterial contamination

Breastfeeding

Requirements during breastfeeding are similar to those for pregnancy, with milk production requiring even more calories. According to the Physician’s Committee for Responsible Medicine:

“During the first six months of breastfeeding, you need 500 calories more than you did before you became pregnant. This drops to 400 additional calories during the second six months of breastfeeding. Protein needs are the same as during the second and third trimesters of pregnancy.”

Conclusion

A healthy vegan pregnancy is absolutely possible. And in fact, while more research is still needed, well-planned vegan diets may even have some benefits for pregnant women, including lower risks for:

postpartum depression
excessive weight gain
gestational diabetes
infant mortality
cesarean section
preeclampsia

The key takeaways are:

Be sure to take a vegan prenatal vitamin every day (such as Best Nest, Ritual, or PreMama.)
Eat a well-balanced diet, focusing on the nutrients detailed above.
Visit your doctor for all prenatal appointments; and share any symptoms or concerns that you may have.
If you are having more than one baby, be sure to see a dietician to ensure you’re meeting your specific needs.

 

Sources:

https://www.healthline.com/nutrition/vegan-pregnancy#safety
https://www.whattoexpect.com/pregnancy/diet/eating-vegetarian-vegan-during-pregnancy/
https://www.pcrm.org/good-nutrition/plant-based-diets/pregnancy
https://www.vrg.org/nutrition/veganpregnancy.php
https://vegan.com/health/pregnancy/https://www.healthline.com/nutrition/7-plant-sources-of-omega-3s
https://www.myfooddata.com/articles/zinc-foods-for-vegans-vegetarians.php
https://www.healthline.com/nutrition/vegan-calcium-sources
https://www.webmd.com/diet/foods-high-iron-vegans#1

Photo by Ryan Franco on Unsplash