Going vegan is on the up with many celebrities choosing to go plant-based, and it seems to have been the most talked about dietary trend of 2017. Now there are some variations to vegan diets – most notably the surge in whole food plant-based diets – but the big picture is that it’s a diet without consuming any animal-based products, including meat, dairy, eggs, and any other animal-containing products. For those of you wondering, here’s a quick distinction between ‘vegan’ and ‘whole food plant-based’: whole foods plant-based diets also focus on eliminating any processed foods while vegans do not, and being vegan usually incorporates more a lifestyle choice – eliminating any food or items that contain animal products or animal exploitation in any way (this is why honey is a no-go for most vegans).
But what we want to focus on here is the diet itself, and getting all of your nutrients from plant-based, non-animal sources. The question is, can you have a healthy pregnancy while staying vegan? The answer: Yes, as long as make sure you’re aware of where your nutritional intake may need support. Ultimately, what matters most is getting a healthy and diverse source of micro- and macronutrients, and you can achieve that with a balanced and varied vegan diet. With any diet during pregnancy, there are things to pay attention to, as you will need to stay aware of what your increased nutritional needs are and learn how to meet them in different ways.
Unfortunately, this is one of those topics that doesn’t have a huge amount of research to pull from – but a comprehensive literature review was conducted in 2015 that looked at all existing research, which gives us the best picture of vegan diets during pregnancy, for now. Give it a read here for yourself! To summarize their main findings, women who follow vegan-vegetarian diets during pregnancy have similar outcomes to women who follow a more traditional omnivorous diet (eating both animal-based and plant-based foods). In their review they also reference the American Dietetic Association who emphasizes that such diets are appropriate during all stages of a woman’s lifecycle (including pregnancy) as long as it’s well-planned.
Well-planned is the key part here – because there are certain nutrients that vegan or plant-based diets may leave you lacking on. The two primary nutrients you’ll need to give extra attention to are Vitamin B12 and Iron, as these are generally best sourced from animal-based products. On the other hand, with the increased reliance on vegetables, vegans generally have higher rates of both folate and magnesium – both incredibly important for baby’s development and your prenatal health. Do note that even if you are on a vegan diet, you still should take folate when trying to conceive and for the first 12 weeks of pregnancy to prevent spinal cord defects.
We’ve recapped some of the micro- and macronutrients you’ll want to pay extra attention if you’re staying vegan while pregnant:
Foods that are packed with protein are primarily animal-based, but that doesn’t mean you can’t get protein-rich foods from vegan-friendly foods. You’ll want to get protein in your diet every day, and you can do so through foods such as: quinoa, buckwheat, soy-based foods, beans, nuts, seeds, and nut butters.
Iron is really important for pregnancy, so you’ll want to up those iron-rich foods! You can get good sources of iron from fortified breakfast cereals, whole-grain bread, legumes, tofu, and dark leafy greens. Combine these foods with items rich in Vitamin C, as this will help you absorb the iron better.
Early on in your pregnancy your doctor will carry out a blood test, if you’re iron levels are low then they may recommend that you take an iron supplement to help prevent prenatal anemia and benefit baby’s development.
As a vegan, dairy isn’t on the menu, so seek out some calcium-fortified nut milks, all-natural fruit juices, and whole-grain breakfast cereals. You can also go for some calcium-containing fruit (figs and oranges, in particular), and calcium-rich beans (such as cannellini beans and edamame). Certain green vegetables, like kale, broccoli, collard greens and bok choy will also provide you with a good dose of calcium.
Vitamin D helps your body absorb calcium. You’ll find that some plant milks, cereals and juices are fortified with this but some women are recommended a supplement of Vitamin D during pregnancy to help keep those levels up. But the best way to up your Vitamin D? Spend some time outside!
Vitamin B12 is the other nutrient that’s often markedly low in vegans. It is primarily found in animal products so it’s important to find a good alternative source that you can have daily, and unfortunately the only way to get it through food is if it’s fortified with B12. Again you can look to supplements here, but you’ll want to be sure to have a conversation with your doctor about this.
Omega-3 fatty acid promotes the development of your baby’s eyes and brain. The most common type of Omega-3 fatty acid is called DHA, and it’s found exclusively in fish and fish oil. You can get some DHA from algae products, but you’ll definitely want to consult your Doctor about taking an omega 3 supplement derived from algae. ALA is another type of omega-3 fatty acid that can offer similar benefits – and this type is present in many nuts and seeds and their oils – walnuts, chia, flax and hemp are the big winners here.
Iodine is really important for your baby’s brain development and carrying a healthy pregnancy to term, though most iodine-rich foods are not vegan-friendly. The good news is, you don’t need very much. Salts are a great way to get healthy levels of iodine in your diet – though if you don’t consume much salt you may want to look for other sources. Seaweed tends to be a great source of iodine, but you’ll definitely want to keep intake in moderation and have it as an infrequent snack – as too much iodine isn’t ideal either.
Being vegan or plant-based is definitely a lifestyle choice and comes with a larger motivation behind it than just looking for a quick fix healthier diet. Some women shift away from a vegan diet just during pregnancy to make it a bit easier to meet their iron and B12 needs, while others make a conscious choice to stick to it – and you shouldn’t feel judged either way.
Whatever you choose to do, make sure you talk with your doctor and discuss the safety of such a diet from a medical standpoint, especially if you have pre-existing conditions, are having a higher-risk pregnancy, or are experiencing any pregnancy complications. Your doctor will also be able to discuss any necessary supplementation with you and advise accordingly, and as always, you’ll want to speak with them before starting any supplementation during your pregnancy.