Is it possible for a woman to grow a healthy baby if they eat vegan throughout their pregnancy? It is safe to say, yes, a vegan diet is able to support a healthy pregnancy. Vegans rely on fruits, vegetables, leafy greens, whole grains, nuts, seeds, beans, and legumes as their staples.
Overall, a well-balanced vegan diet tends to be lower in saturated fat and cholesterol and higher in fiber, magnesium, potassium, vitamin C, vitamin E, folate, and a wide range of phytochemicals compared to diets that include animal products.
However, vegans may have lower intakes of protein, vitamin B12, calcium, vitamin D, iron, zinc, and omega-3 fatty acids (DHA). Let’s take a closer look at these key nutrients pregnancy vegans want to pay closer attention to.
Protein is crucial during pregnancy, both for yourself and your baby. In fact, pregnancy increases a woman’s protein needs because it’s vital for building fetal tissue, including the brain. It also helps your breast and uterine tissue growth during pregnancy and plays a role in your increasing blood supply.
In fact, when you’re pregnant, your daily requirement shoots up from about 50 grams per day to 75 grams per day (and even more if you’re carrying multiples). Vegans should consume 10% more than the typical recommendations because plant-based protein sources such as soy, legumes, nuts, seeds, grains, and vegetables, are more difficult to absorb than animal sources.
A pregnant woman in her 2nd and 3rd trimester, or carrying multiples, needs more calories to ensure your baby is getting all the nutrients he needs. Many vegan diets are nutrient-dense but may not be calorie-dense, so pregnant women need to make sure they’re meeting their calorie needs. Pregnant vegans should plan ahead to have food with them as much as possible and snack on high-calorie options like nuts, nut butters, seeds, and dried fruit. Vegan sports bars also come in handy when you need a quick snack.
This critical vitamin is only found in animal products. Vitamin B12 is required for the production of red blood cells, and additional blood is needed during pregnancy to support the fetus's growth. It is essential to get the recommended 2.4 mcg a day. A prenatal vitamin contains vitamin B12, and you also get it by consuming ample vitamin B12-fortified foods such as whole grains, soy milk, meat alternatives, or nutrition bars.
Did you know, the amount of calcium your intestines absorb during pregnancy doubles?!
In addition, about 80% of the calcium present in the baby’s skeleton at the end of pregnancy crossed the placenta during the 3rd trimester and is mostly derived from the calcium in the mom’s diet during pregnancy. The calcium mom eats seems to be the main way our bodies adapt to meet those high calcium demands during pregnancy (1). Amazing!
Since a vegan diet doesn’t include dairy products, which is the main calcium source, vegans tend to fall below the daily recommendations of 1,000 mg/day and 1,300 mg/day for teenagers. Here are Tips to Maximize Calcium Absorption during pregnancy.
Structured vegan diets should contain ample sources of highly bioavailable calcium from items such as broccoli, collards, calcium-set tofu, fortified fruit juices, and some fortified non-dairy milk. Still, a calcium supplement is often recommended to meet the body’s needs.
During pregnancy, the amount of blood in your body increases until you have almost 50% more than usual! Iron is crucial for this process because it’s needed to make more hemoglobin, which is the oxygen-carrying molecule found in red blood cells. Iron also helps maintain a healthy immune system.
When your iron is low, you are likely to feel fatigued, and vegans are at a high risk of suffering from iron-deficiency anemia because they don’t eat red meat (the most bioavailable dietary source of iron). If you're anemic, you have a harder time fighting infections, and you may have an increased risk of bleeding after you give birth.
One pitfall about iron…iron from plant-based foods is not absorbed as well as iron from animal foods, so the recommended intake for vegans is 1.8 times greater than meat-eaters.
Iron Tip: The iron in sprouted grains, legumes, and fermented foods, such as miso and tempeh is absorbed more readily.
Vegan or not, this is one vitamin many people are low in, especially if your pregnancy takes place throughout the winter months. Vitamin D supports normal fetal growth during pregnancy, including bone, neurologic, and immune system development. Other interesting information suggests if a woman has low vitamin D levels during pregnancy, her baby may have an increased risk of getting eczema through the first year of life (2).
Also, low maternal vitamin D levels (
How Much Vitamin D?
To meet your needs, consider a combination of vitamin D fortified foods, exposure to sunlight, and vitamin D supplementation. The recommendation for Vitamin D supplementation during pregnancy is controversial and varies depending on what source you’re reading. This makes it very difficult to know how much vitamin D is necessary to support a healthy body. The best bet is to talk to your doctor.
Here are vitamin D recommendations from a few health agencies willing to even commit to providing a number and, as you can see, the recommendations are extremely different!
- Institute of Medicine, Food and Nutrition Board: 600 IU for everyone up to age 70 (4)
- Vitamin D council: 6,000 IU for pregnant and lactating women (5)
- GrassrootsHealth: 4,000 IU for pregnant women after 12 weeks gestation (6)
Omega-3 Fatty Acids
One omega-3 fatty acid, DHA, is especially important during pregnancy because it's absolutely vital for your unborn baby’s brain and eye development, nervous system, and immune system (7, 8, 9). Along with benefits to the baby, a pregnant mom consuming omega-3’s reduces her risk of pre-term labor, pre-eclampsia, and possibly post-partum depression (8, 9).
Following a vegan diet makes it difficult to eat the recommended 1.1 to 1.6 grams of omega-3 fatty acids per day, because they’re found in fatty fish and fish oils.
However, omega-3 fatty acid deficiency may become less of a concern by combining nuts, seeds (especially flax and pumpkin), algae, and some leafy greens.
For pregnant and breastfeeding women, a minimum of 300 mg DHA daily (10). You're not going to overdose on this natural fat, so I always error on the side of a little higher.
Bottom Line: Take careful consideration when choosing your food in order to get the nutrients your body needs to grow a healthy baby. Talk to your health care provider about essential nutrients you may need more of during pregnancy.
In Health and Happiness,
Kelly Harrington, MS, RDN
Registered Dietitian Nutritionist for Healthy Goods
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