Vegan Pregnancy

What is a vegan diet?

Being a vegan is the practice of abstaining from the use of animal products, particularly in your diet. In addition, an associated philosophy includes the rejection of the commodity status of animals. A follower of the vegan diet or philosophy is known as a vegan. Distinctions may be made between several categories of veganism. Vegans do not eat meat such as beef, pork, poultry, fowl, game, or seafood. They also abstain from eggs, dairy, or any other animal products. 

Difference between a vegan and a vegetarian

Both vegans and vegetarians don't eat meat products including fish. The main difference between a vegan and vegetarian diet is that vegans additionally exclude dairy products and eggs. Ethical vegans avoid them on the premise that the production of eggs or milk causes animal suffering and premature death. A pescatarian is a person that does not eat meat but eats seafood.

Healthy vegan diet during pregnancy

Many women find that it is not always easy to consume all of the proper foods and supplements to ensure adequate nutrition during pregnancy, but a vegan diet can be an added challenge. A vegan diet can be a very healthy and nutritionally complete diet if done the right way, but excluding all meat and dairy foods can put women at risk of some key nutrient deficiencies.

Protein may be the least of a vegan’s concerns as grains paired with beans provide a complete source of protein. The best part is that these two food groups don’t have to be eaten together at the same meal to be converted into a high-quality protein. If you are consuming a variety of grains throughout the day such as rice, bread, and pasta, along with beans and legumes such as chickpeas, lentils, and nuts, your body will be able to mix the nutrients together to create a complete protein regardless of when the foods were consumed. There are also certain “super foods” such as soy products and quinoa that can be broken down into all of the essential amino acids to provide a complete source of protein on their own.

A more challenging nutrient to obtain while following a vegan diet is vitamin B12. This important B vitamin is needed in higher amounts before and at the beginning of pregnancy to ensure adequate development of the baby’s nervous system. Vitamin B12 is found mostly in meat and dairy foods which a vegan excludes from their diet. In order to obtain enough of this essential B vitamin, you must consume fortified bread and breakfast cereals. Taking an additional supplement is also recommended.
Calcium, needed to promote healthy bone development and growth, is another nutrient that a vegan’s diet may easily lack. Calcium is found mainly in dairy foods, but vegan sources include dark green leafy vegetables such as broccoli, collard greens, and kale.

Fortified dairy alternatives such as soy, rice, or almond milk can also provide a good source of this bone-building nutrient. Vitamin D, which is needed to absorb calcium in the body, is also usually added to these beverages. Be sure to read the label to see how much a beverage provides. An additional calcium plus vitamin D supplement should be taken as well to ensure adequate intake of these important nutrients.  

Another nutrient that vegans may be lacking is iron, a mineral that is needed to create hemoglobin- the protein found in red blood cells which helps deliver oxygen to other cells and tissues throughout the body. Vegans can obtain this important nutrient through foods such as dried beans, dark green leafy vegetables, and fortified grains and dairy substitutes. Adding vitamin C to dark green vegetables helps the body absorb more iron from them. Vitamin C-rich foods include citrus fruits, tomatoes, and strawberries, so adding a citrus dressing to spinach or eating tomatoes with broccoli, for example, could be a great way to boost a vegan’s iron intake. Taking a prenatal vitamin along with eating iron-rich foods will ensure that a pregnant women’s iron needs are met. 

One of the most challenging nutrients for a vegan to obtain is Omega-3 fatty acids which are important unsaturated fats that help promote cognitive development and healthy cardiovascular function in developing infants. These healthy fats are found mostly in fatty fish such as salmon, bass, and mackerel - foods that a vegan cannot eat. Unfortunately, the plant sources of omega- 3 fatty acids such as flaxseeds, soybeans, pumpkin seeds, and walnuts, do not contain the same type of omega-3 found in fish and have not been shown to confer the same health benefits. It is therefore recommended that vegans consume an omega-3 supplement to obtain these critical fats. 

Though vegans have more to consider when it comes to obtaining proper nutrition to promote a healthy pregnancy, the job can certainly be done with a little meal planning, nutrient supplementation, and guidance from a registered dietitian!

Vegetarians and vegans can eat a healthy diet during pregnancy as long as they follow certain rules.

  1. Establish the appropriate weight gain: There is no better indication of healthy pregnancy eating than healthy weight gain. During the first visit to the obstetrician, a generic weight gain chart should be established offering the vegetarian a guide to the right amount of weight they should be gaining along the way.
  2. Protein: Many people believe that vegetarians and vegans eat no protein. This is not the case. Instead of protein coming from animal sources, it comes from vegetable sources. When pregnant, it is ideal to add an extra 25 grams of protein to the daily diet. This can be achieved with 1 1/2 cups of soy milk which can also provide calcium and other healthy nutrients.
  3. Calcium: Pregnant women need at least 8 servings of calcium-rich foods every day. This can be difficult to achieve when eating traditionally, let alone being a vegetarian. Again, calcium-fortified soy milk is a great option. The serving size is usually no more than 1/2 a cup, so it is easy to add extra servings with a glass or two of soy milk. The milk will also play a double role by adding that protein.
  4. Vitamin D: Getting enough Vitamin D is all about going out in the sun. Most pregnant vegetarians can spend time outside every day and never worry about Vitamin D levels. Obstetricians usually do not prescribe Vitamin D supplementation because, with overdose, the result can be toxic.
  5. Iron: Many women both vegetarian and those following a traditional diet suffer from low iron or anemia during pregnancy. There are plenty of foods allowed in a vegetarian and vegan lifestyle that are rich in iron including tofu, dried beans, and whole-grain foods.
  6. Vitamin B12: While there is Vitamin B12 in many foods, supplementation is the best option for a pregnant vegetarian. These supplements come in liquid, sublingual and tablet form. There are also prenatal vitamins with added Vitamin B12. There is no known toxicity level for B12.
  7. Folate: Folate or Folic Acid can help prevent neural tube defects in the fetus. Folate can be consumed by adding dark green, leafy vegetables like spinach to the diet. All prenatal vitamins will include folate.
  8. DHA: The perfect source for DHA is fatty fish. For vegetarians, this option is out of the question. DHA supplements created from algae can be helpful for vegetarians.
  9. Iodine: All humans need iodine to live. If the majority of the foods consumed are salt-free or natural, adding just 3/4 of a teaspoon to the food over the course of the day will up that iodine level to healthy.
  10. Prenatal vitamins: Many of the foods eaten in a vegetarian diet are full of vitamins and healthy nutrients. When in doubt, a vegetarian prenatal vitamin should be taken.
  11. Eat often: Research has shown that eating your vitamins and nutrients means far better absorption than supplementing with vitamin pills. Also with certain elements being dumped from the body after the body uses all it needs (example: B vitamins), a pregnant vegetarian should eat multiple times a day.
  12. Plan meals ahead of time: No one has the time to sit around all day and fix a vegetarian meal after meal. This is why it is important to know the numbers you need to hit and focus your meal planning on the best possible RDA outcome.

Read More:
Eat Healthy: Pregnancy Nutrition and Food Guide
Get Your Body Ready for Pregnancy
The Preconception To-Do List