Optimum Nutrition for Vegan Pregnancy

Well-planned vegan diets are suitable for all stages of life (including pregnancy, lactation, and infancy) and they may also aid in the prevention of certain diseases. Adequate nutrient and caloric intake are crucial for making sure your pregnancy is as healthy as it can possibly be.

Reviewed by a dietician: Adriana Chychula, MS, RD, LDN

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“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 assumed to be low in certain nutrients like B12, protein, calcium, zinc, iron, iodine, and omega-3’s. And it’s true that the levels of nutrients consumed during pregnancy have an impact on your baby’s development and health later on in life.  

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 achieving optimal health during pregnancy and beyond. The truth is that mothers who follow healthy vegan diets are able to thrive during pregnancy and give birth to healthy babies.

Note that the following nutrient and micronutrient recommendations are based on optimal nutrition for the average healthy woman and are not a substitute for medical advice. Be sure to disclose all supplement use – including herbal and botanical supplements – to your healthcare practitioner, as they can interact with certain medications and/or alter your nutrient status.

All supplementation should occur under medical supervision, as over-supplementation of certain nutrients can be just as dangerous as inadequate intake. Never take more of a supplement than is recommended, and don’t change or add to your routine without first consulting with your doctor or health practitioner.

Caloric Needs

For the average healthy pregnant woman, the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics recommends increasing your recommended daily caloric intake by 340 extra calories during the second trimester, and 450 extra calories during the third trimester.

BMI before pregnancy  Status Recommended weight gain
<18.5 Underweight 28 – 40 lbs
18.5 – 24.9 Normal 25 – 35 lbs
25 – 29.9 Overweight 15 – 25 lbs
30 Obese 11 – 20 lbs

Caloric intake should increase an additional 500 calories per day from pre-pregnancy needs during the first six months of breastfeeding and decrease to 400 additional calories during the second six months of breastfeeding.

For accurate baseline calorie recommendations, consult a dietitian. Know that calorie restricted diets for weight loss are advised against during pregnancy.

Protein

During pregnancy, your body uses amino acids from proteins to help build cells and produce hormones for your developing child, as well as maintain your health.

Adequate protein intake for proper maternal health and child development is ensured by eating a diet that is rich in a wide variety of plant foods, including whole grains, nuts and seeds, and legumes.

To ensure adequate intake of essential amino acids, (the building blocks of proteins) vegans should be sure to eat a wide variety of foods rich in quality protein such as whole soybeans, lentils, nuts, hemp seed, quinoa, buckwheat, and other nutritious foods.

Know that fruits, vegetables, and whole grains all contain varying amounts of essential amino acids, and when eaten in the right amounts can contribute to your total protein intake. Worry less about matching complementary essential amino acid sources and more about just eating a variety of whole foods, as this will naturally increase your total protein intake. 

In fact, the general consensus according to available data is that true protein and amino acid deficiency in those consuming vegan diets is rare. As long as you are consuming a diet containing enough calories and the right macronutrient ratios from a variety of whole foods, you are at low risk for protein deficiency.

During the second and third trimester of pregnancy, as well as during breastfeeding, the recommended daily intake of protein for the average healthy pregnant woman is at least 70 grams per day. If you’re concerned that you are not getting enough protein in your diet or would like a more accurate number specific to you and your current health, you may wish to consult a dietitian.

High protein vegan foods include:

Soybeans (29 g per cup)
Tempeh (16 g per 3 oz)
Edamame (17 g per cup)
Lentils (18 g per cup)
Beans (15 g per cup)
Nutritional yeast (14 g per oz)
Nuts and seeds (about 4-9 g per oz)
Wild rice (7 g per cup)
Quinoa (8 g per cup)
Amaranth (9 g per cup)

Iron

Your body needs more iron than usual during pregnancy to help make blood for your baby.

This might raise some concern, since heme iron (from animals) is known to be absorbed better than non-heme iron (from plant-based sources), but there are ways to make sure both you and your baby have all of the iron you need through plant-based foods.

Mild anemia is common even in non-vegan women, and it is common for even healthy non-vegan women to be advised to take an iron-containing supplement during their pregnancy.

Pregnant women need 27 mg of iron daily in order to maintain adequate iron levels and prevent anemia, which can cause preterm birth and low birth weight. Breastfeeding women need 9 mg daily.

Below are some iron-rich vegan food options: 

Tofu (6.6 mg/cup)
Lentils (6.6 mg/cup)
Kidney beans (5.2 mg/cup)
Spinach (6.4 mg/cup)
Swiss chard (4 mg/cup)

As an extra boost, you can eat iron-rich foods with vitamin C to increase the absorption. Cooking with cast iron skillets is another way to increase your iron intake. 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

B12 status is probably the most widely-popularized nutritional issue for vegans because only trace amounts are available naturally from plants. Fortified foods and supplements are the only reliable vegan 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 about 2.6 mcg per day, and 2.8 mcg when breastfeeding.

There are three options.

  • Supplement your diet with B12 fortified foods. This can include nutritional yeast and certain brands of soymilk and cereals.
  • Take a daily B12 supplement
  • Take a weekly B12 supplement

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

Calcium

Calcium is the most abundant mineral in the body and is needed for a huge range of bodily functions, in everything from muscle contractions to hormone function. During pregnancy, your body has to balance your needs with your baby’s development, so adequate dietary intake is essential.

Contrary to popular belief, calcium isn’t too difficult to find in a vegan diet as it can be found in many plant sources, especially leafy greens, nuts and legumes. Calcium absorption from all of these foods tends to be excellent, and many plant milks and juices are also 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 can contribute to bone density problems. Inadequate calcium intake can also increase your risk of complications including preeclampsia and preterm birth.

Pregnant and breastfeeding women should get 1000-1300 mg of calcium daily.

Cooked Soybeans (18.5% RDI per cup)
Edamame (27.6% 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 3 fatty acids are a type of unsaturated fat known for their involvement in heart and brain health and are important components in all cell membranes.

There are a few different types of omega 3’s that you’ll see that are considered “essential,” meaning that your body can’t make them from other materials on its own. These essential omega 3’s are EPA, DHA, and ALA.

Omega 3s are crucial for fetal growth and development, and supplementing with omega 3s may help with brain health, including 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 ALA, which is converted to EPA and DHA.

Note that as of right now there are no established recommendations for daily EPA and DHA, but pregnant women should get 1.4 g of ALA and breastfeeding women should get 1.3 g ALA daily.

The following foods will provide a healthy boost of these nutrients:

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 0.5 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

Your vitamin D status is going to be determined by a lot of factors. Since humans are able to make vitamin D from sun exposure, your levels are going to be determined by how much time you spend outside, your sunscreen use, where you live in relation to the equator, and how much melanin your skin naturally contains. Since there aren’t too many food sources of vitamin D, vegan or not, you’ll find that it’s common for plant milks and juices to be fortified with vitamin D.

In many places around the world, deficiencies are common based on the aforementioned factors that influence vitamin D status. The best way to know whether you would benefit from a vitamin D supplement is to have your levels checked by your doctor, who can recommend the best course of action. Know that more is not always better, especially with supplementation. Don’t take more than is recommended. 

Vitamin D is important for the immune system, as well as the development of healthy teeth and bones. There is an inverse relationship between vitamin D status and many diseases, including depression.

Pregnant women should aim for 600 IU daily.

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

If you decide to take a vitamin D supplement, it’s best to take it with a meal that contains a source of fat since it is a fat-soluble vitamin and will be absorbed better. Also, be aware that most D3 supplements are not vegan, though the range of vegan options is increasing. 

Folate

Folate deficiency is known to cause neural tube defects, especially early in gestation before a woman is even aware she is pregnant. Because of the sharp association between folate deficiency and risk to the developing baby, it’s recommended that all women of reproductive age take 400 mcg daily, in addition to incorporating a variety of folate-rich foods in the diet.

Legumes (131 mcg/cup)
Asparagus (134 mcg/0.5 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/0.5 cup)

Iodine

Iodine is an essential mineral involved in production of both maternal and fetal thyroid hormones that regulate fetal neurological development.

While iodine is naturally present in both soil and drinking water, its depletion has become a global issue, with the majority of bioavailable iodine now found in the world’s oceans rather than its soils, and iodine insufficiency affecting an estimated two billion people worldwide, according to the WHO

Although dairy products and eggs are generally considered to be good sources of iodine, the reason for this is that both cow and chicken feed are iodine-fortified. As plant milk producers have yet to catch on to this practice, vegan milks that are similarly enriched are the exception to the rule. 

Adding to this the fact that many vegans don’t consume iodized salt, some data suggests that vegans are at increased risk of iodine deficiency and might benefit from an iodine supplement, in addition to being mindful of incorporating iodine-rich foods in the diet.

While seaweeds are a notable vegan iodine source, it’s becoming increasingly challenging to find sea vegetables that are uncontaminated by ocean pollutants. Kombu kelp, as one example, can have 2000% of the recommended daily iodine intake in just 1 sheet! Additionally, with this in mind, be wary of excessive iodine intake as this can also lead to health concerns. The upper limit for iodine is 1100 mcg daily.

Lima beans and prunes are two other vegan sources of iodine.

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

Pregnant women should aim for 220 mcg daily, while breastfeeding women should aim for 290 mcg.

Zinc

Zinc is a mineral used in chemical reactions throughout your body that support daily life. Many of these reactions support nutrient metabolism, your immune system, and tissue repair.

Pregnant vegan women should be mindful of zinc intake because many of the natural sources of zinc are non-vegan, and many plant foods contain compounds that actually hinder zinc absorption.

A lack of zinc can lead to poor birth outcomes, but luckily there are many great vegan options for you to choose from including many legumes, seeds, nuts, and whole grains.

The recommended daily intake of zinc during pregnancy is about 11 mg, while breastfeeding women should get 12 mg.

Firm tofu (4 mg/cup)
Hemp seeds (3 mg/oz)
Lentils (3 mg/cup)
Fortified cereals (19 mg/0.75 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 central nervous system.

A pregnant woman should aim for 450 mg of choline daily, and those who are breastfeeding should get 550 mg.

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)

Note that while choline is recognized as an important nutrient in pregnancy and beyond, not all prenatal vitamins have choline. If this is something of interest to you, ask your health provider.

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.

If you find yourself craving non-food items, such as ice or paper, this could be a sign of iron deficiency, and you should bring it up to your healthcare practitioner.

A quick note about nausea and vomiting

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

  • Eat smaller, bland meals throughout the day
  • Avoid strong smelling foods
  • Eat low-fat, high-carb foods
  • Suck on ice chips
  • Hard candies can be helpful if vomiting becomes a health concern*

*If you are experiencing ongoing, frequent bouts of vomiting during your pregnancy that make it impossible to hold anything down or eat or drink anything throughout the day, it is important to see your doctor. You might be at risk for dehydration, which can affect the health of you and your developing baby.

What to Avoid

  • Alcohol should never be consumed during pregnancy.
  • Caffeine should be limited to 200 mg per day while pregnant (the equivalent of 12 oz. of coffee)
  • Overly processed foods are often full of empty calories that don’t deliver much in terms of micronutrients, and often contain additives and added 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.”

For recommendations specific to you and your health, visit your doctor.

Conclusion

A well-planned vegan diet that provides the recommended amounts of macro- and micronutrients is completely possible! Despite many common beliefs, a well-planned vegan diet can support a healthy mother and pregnancy. The important thing is to be mindful of your food sources and supplement use, and to disclose all of your habits to your doctor.

The key takeaways are:

  • With your doctor’s supervision, there are many vegan prenatal daily vitamins available to support a healthy pregnancy.  Ask your doctor about 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 carrying more than one baby, be sure to see a dietitian to ensure you’re meeting your specific needs.

Sources

https://www.fdc.nal.usda.gov/
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://www.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

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