Pregnancy is one of the most exciting times in a woman’s life. It can also be one of the most stressful, dealing with various symptoms and changes all while figuring out how to eat to provide the best nutrition for a growing fetus. Pregnancy is a high metabolic and nutritionally demanding phase of life, and this means a bit more nutritional planning and consideration is necessary to meet these drastic physiologic changes.
Can you have a healthy and thriving vegan pregnancy? The answer is a resounding yes, from Lauren Panoff, MPH RD of Chronic Planet, a plant-based dietitian who advises women and families who are following vegan lifestyles.
The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, the nation’s largest organization of dietitians, published a paper on plant-based diets, saying a vegan diet is healthy and nutritionally adequate for pregnant women, so long as there is appropriate planning — as women who forgo meat products are at a higher risk of being lower in nutrients, especially iron and vitamin b12. (1)
However, with the explosion of vegan products on the market, notably plant-based milks, getting b12 and iron from fortified foods is no longer as concerning as it once was.
Regardless, between these demands and the added social pressures, pregnancy can be even more stressful for vegan women, especially the first time around. A vegan diet avoids all animal products of any kind, including meat, eggs, dairy, fish and usually honey. Instead, vegans get their nutrients from a plant-based diet, founded on foods like beans, legumes, soy, nuts, seeds, whole grains, fruits and vegetables.
Today, parents can confidently choose to have a vegan pregnancy with reliable information at their fingertips from websites such as Raise Vegan. A growing body of personal and professional resources, as well as supportive virtual communities, are becoming increasingly accessible to help vegan parents through this phase of life.
Below are some of the most important factors for women to consider when choosing to have a pregnancy fueled by a plant-based diet.
Healthy Vegan Pregnancy Nutrition
1. Eat Enough Calories
There’s a common misconception that pregnancy requires double the amount of calories than is normal, seeing as there are now two, or more people to count for. In reality, caloric needs remain the same as normal during the first trimester, only increasing to around an additional 300 calories per day in the second and third trimesters, says Panoff. (2)
As plant foods tend to be lower in calories, vegan women may need to pay closer attention to their energy intake. A good way to increase calories is by choosing more calorically dense and higher-fat foods, such as avocados, plant-based milks, soy foods, nuts, seeds, beans and lentils. Some other great vehicles for calories are fruit and flaxseed smoothies or peanut butter milkshakes, and baked foods like banana oatmeal bread or tofu pancakes.
Pregnancy can be a time of cravings, which differ among women but may be for sugary or highly refined packaged foods. These types of foods tend to be “empty calorie foods”, or foods that contribute calories without much fiber or other nutrients, and should be limited as much as possible. Eating smaller, more frequent meals and snacks can also help women consume adequate calories during pregnancy.
2. Pay Attention to Key Nutrients
Micronutrients are essential for any pregnant woman, but vegan women may want to pay special attention to those listed below and where to find them on a plant-based diet.
Folate helps make DNA, amino acids, supports cell division, prevents neural tube defects and megaloblastic anemia. The recommendation for pregnancy is 600–800 micrograms per day. This can be found in dark leafy greens, oranges, nuts, whole grains, peas, beans, and enriched cereals and breads.
Omega 3 fatty acids are needed for maintaining healthy membranes around the eyes and brain, supporting functions in the heart, blood vessels, lungs, immune system, and keeping a healthy hormonal balance. There is no set recommendation for omega 3 needs, but many professionals suggest the average person consume 250–500 milligrams of combined EPA and DHA on a daily basis, so it’s possible that this is more during pregnancy. (3) Omega 3 fats can be found in ground flaxseed, canola oil, walnuts, hemp and algal-derived DHA/EPA supplements.
Calcium is essential for heart and bone health, muscle and nerve function. The recommendation for pregnancy is 1000 mg per day. Good sources include bok choy, calcium-set tofu, fortified orange juice and plant-based milks, broccoli, Chinese cabbage, and kale.
Iron is needed for maintaining healthy red blood cells, connective tissues and hormones circulating in the body. Pregnant women should be getting around 27 milligrams per day. Plant-based iron sources include lentils, beans, spinach, kale, peas, nuts, raisins, blackstrap molasses, fortified cereals and grains, and dried apricots. Eating foods rich in vitamin C at the same time can enhance iron absorption.
Vitamin B12 is essential for healthy nerves and red blood cells, making DNA and preventing megaloblastic anemia. The recommendation for pregnancy is 2.6 micrograms per day and it can be found in nutritional yeast, fortified plant-based milks, and in supplemental form like in prenatal vitamins.
Vitamin D is responsible for helping the body absorb calcium for strong bones and teeth, nerve function, and supporting a healthy immune system. Pregnant women should consume at least 600 IU per day. Vitamin D can be synthesized in the skin through sunlight, but because this process is not always efficient and depends on a variety of individual factors, better sources are fortified plant-milks, UV-treated mushrooms and dietary supplements.
Choline plays a role in gene expression, early brain development and fat metabolism. The recommendation during pregnancy is 450 milligrams per day, and it can be found in nuts, seeds, whole grains, cruciferous vegetables and beans.
Zinc is needed to help the immune system, make protein and DNA, and support wound healing. The recommendation for pregnancy is 11 milligrams per day. Zinc can be found in nuts, beans, peas, whole grains, oranges and leafy greens.
Iodine is needed to support healthy bones and brain, as well as make thyroid hormones that control metabolism. Pregnant women should get around 220 mcg per day, through iodized salt, seaweed and other sea vegetables, and a prenatal vitamin.
Protein is a building block for bones, muscles, tissues and blood. An additional 25 grams of protein per day is indicated in the second and third trimesters. This can easily be added through soy foods, seitan, beans, peas, lentils, whole grains, nuts and seeds.
3. Stay Hydrated
It is important to drink enough fluid during pregnancy, especially during the hot summer months, in order to stay hydrated, prevent early contractions, and maintain the amniotic fluid and 60 percent increase in blood volume needed for a growing baby. (4)
A good estimate is to drink 1-1.5 mL per calorie consumed; because pregnancy requires an additional 300 calories in the last two trimesters, this would equate to an additional 300 mL of water per day as a baseline. (5) Luckily, whole plant foods like leafy greens, melon, grapefruit, cucumber, bell peppers, strawberries and tomatoes are also full of water. An alarm can be used as a reminder for drinking water if needed.
Correctly and well thought out planned vegan diets offer many health benefits to both mom and baby, both during pregnancy and after. A balanced diet based on whole plant foods provides a wide array of vitamins, minerals and antioxidants that are great for both mom and baby.
Statistics show us that rates of conditions such as gestational diabetes are lower among vegan women, and that they often maintain a healthier pregnancy weight range.
Informal pregnancy outcome data of 2,028 pregnancies collected in the same community of vegans from 1970–2000 showed a lower than average rate of C-section (1.4 percent), postpartum depression (1 percent), neonatal mortality (0.4 percent), and preeclampsia (0.4 percent) with no complications higher than average.
Seeking out vegan groups that are designed specifically for vegan pregnancies and families, such as Raise Vegan and Vegan Pregnancy and Parenting are always good ideas, from recipes and support. Remember, going it alone can sometimes be daunting.
Janet Kearney is the Editor-in-Chief of Raise Vegan Magazine, the largest vegan parenting magazine worldwide, she resides in NYC with her two children who are also being raised on a plant-based diet.