Discovering you’re expecting a baby can be one of the most exciting and daunting times in your life. If you’re vegan, not only are there concerns about the changes happening to your body and any fears surrounding labor, there’s also the worry about the safety of being vegan and pregnant.
In this guide, we take a look at all the issues surrounding vegan pregnancy and arm you with the information you need to have a safe and healthy plant-based pregnancy.
Is it really safe to have a vegan pregnancy?
This is likely to be a nagging question for many vegan moms-to-be no matter how long they’ve been vegan for. So it’s reassuring to know that yes, you absolutely can have a safe vegan pregnancy.
And it’s not just the hundreds of thousands of other vegan moms out there that are confirming it. Organizations such as the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics have publicly stated that:
“…appropriately planned vegetarian, including vegan, diets are healthful, nutritionally adequate, and may provide health benefits for the prevention and treatment of certain diseases. These diets are appropriate for all stages of the life cycle, including pregnancy, lactation, infancy, childhood, adolescence, older adulthood, and for athletes.” (1)
This is a position that is also backed up by the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine (PCRM). (2)
The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics states that pregnant vegans need reliable sources of B12, such as fortified foods or supplements.
In addition to B12, you’ll also need to be especially aware of your iron, vitamin D, calcium, omega-3 fatty acid and protein intake.
The key to a safe and healthy vegan pregnancy is in the planning. The PCRM notes that during pregnancy, your nutrient needs increase. So it’s important to know which foods to avoid or include in your diet and whether or not you need to supplement to help you hit all your nutritional goals.
If you don’t know where to start, there’s a whole range of vegan pregnancy books available today and there’s a book out there to suit whatever your birthing and parenting philosophy may be.
Having a vegan pregnancy book is a useful resource to have in not only guiding you through your pregnancy but also giving you the confidence to know that you are making the right dietary and lifestyle choices for your health and your growing baby.
What issues are vegans likely to face when pregnant?
As long as you are in good physical health and are vigilant in ensuring you hit all the necessary nutrient targets for pregnant vegans, there’s no reason why you shouldn’t have a “normal” and healthy pregnancy.
However, even the most committed vegans admit to sometimes having niggling doubts as to whether or not it’s safe for them and their baby to stay vegan during pregnancy.
Social conditioning and nutritional myths about getting protein and calcium from animal products are rife and hard to shake. Couple those with pregnancy hormones, irrational and powerful cravings for animal products, and potential pressure from uninformed (but well-meaning) friends, family or medical professionals and psychologically it can be very challenging.
Here are our top tips for avoiding vegan-related issues when pregnant:
- Eat healthily and inform yourself about vegan nutritional requirements for pregnancy
- Come prepared and fully briefed on the safety of a vegan diet for pregnancy when meeting with medical professionals
- Expect that criticism and questioning of your vegan diet is likely par for the course during pregnancy so you can prepare what you want to say in response
- And finally, remind yourself of the reasons why you are vegan in the first place and the kind of values this lifestyle brings to the child you’re expecting
Why good health is vital PRIOR to pregnancy
Being pregnant places a huge strain on your body. If you’ve neglected your health prior to conception, the likelihood of complications with things such as gestational diabetes or high blood pressure increases, putting both your health and that of your baby’s at risk.
During the first trimester of pregnancy the fetus is most vulnerable to the harmful effects of any substances or unhealthy behaviours and this time is when you’re most likely to experience a miscarriage or for your baby to develop a birth defect.
At least three months before trying to conceive you should consider doing the following:
- Quit smoking and drinking
- Reach a healthy weight for your BMI
- Speak with your healthcare provider about any medications you’re on that could be harmful to a growing baby
- Clean up your diet by eliminating processed junk foods
Doing these things will set you in good stead for a strong and healthy pregnancy.
The great news is that in choosing a plant-based diet you’re already on the way to success. There are many anecdotal accounts of women who have previously struggled to conceive and then have become pregnant quite quickly after switching to a plant-based diet.
In addition, a recent study from the University of Adelaide’s Robinson Research Institute revealed that women who eat low amounts of fruit and high amounts of processed fast-food are less likely to conceive. So a diet heavy in plant-foods is key to getting your body and health in good shape before getting pregnant. (3)
The importance of good nutrition during vegan pregnancies
The impact of nutritional deficiencies and poor diet -regardless of whether or not you’re vegan – during pregnancy can impact a child’s long-term health. That’s why eating a well-planned diet and taking a prenatal supplement is important for expecting vegan moms.
Here are some of the key nutrients you need to be mindful of when planning your vegan pregnancy diet:
While pregnant, your body uses iron to make extra blood for you and your baby. You need about twice the amount of iron than usual when you’re pregnant and failing to get enough can result in anemia. You’ll need around 27 milligrams each day.
You can get extra iron through cooking your food in cast iron cookware. Other vegan sources of iron include:
- Fortified oatmeal and cereals
- Dried apricots
- Kidney beans
- Lima beans
- Soy beans
We all know that vitamin C is important but it’s even more important for pregnant women due to its ability to help the body increase iron absorption.
What’s more, a woman’s immune system is slightly repressed when pregnant in order that the body doesn’t reject the fetus. Vitamin C can help support your body if you’re struck down with any sickness bugs going around.
Vitamin C intake can help with teeth and gum health, which is something that a lot of pregnant women struggle with.
Anecdotal evidence also suggests high levels of vitamin C intake during pregnancy can also help reduce the likelihood of stretch marks.
Vitamin B12 is crucial for your nervous system and it’s also believed to help prevent spina bifida and other central nervous system birth defects in your baby when combined with folate during pregnancy.
Vegans will find B12 in fortified foods such as cereals, plant milks, nutritional yeast and yeast spreads. While pregnant, it’s always a good idea to take a high-quality vegan B12 supplement or ensure B12 is adequately represented in your prenatal supplement.
Folate is also known as vitamin B9 and it’s extremely important that prior to conception and especially during the first trimester of pregnancy, that your folate intake is optimal.
Folate supports the healthy division of cells and promotes proper fetal growth, reducing the risk of birth defects. (4)
Plant based sources of folate include:
- Leafy greens
- Citrus fruits
- Brussels sprouts
- Nuts and seeds
- Wheat germ
- Fortified grains
Low vitamin D levels have been linked to infertility in various studies, and in pregnancy vitamin D is vital for your baby’s healthy bone development. A deficiency can also be associated with an increased risk of preeclampsia.
You can often find vitamin D in fortified plant milks and other foods.You might see D2 or D3 listed on the ingredients; D2 always comes from plant sources, while D3 can come from either sheep’s wool (lanolin) or lichen algae – so it could be vegan vitamin D, but not always.
Mushrooms are also another great and natural food option for vegans as they contain vitamin D. Make sure you get some exposure to sunlight too as this is the most natural way to get your vitamin D.
Fungi can be fickle, though. Learn how to tell if mushrooms have gone bad here so you don’t get caught out.
You absolutely do not have to consume dairy products in order to get calcium! There’s calcium in a variety of plant foods so careful diet planning will ensure you get enough.
Calcium is important during pregnancy for growing your baby’s bones and teeth. You can find it in foods such as:
- Fortified plant milks
- Beans – pinto, red and white
- Bok choy
- Sweet potatoes
If you find that your levels are low, a short course of vegan calcium supplements could be beneficial to bring things back to where they should be.
If you’re trying to conceive, zinc is essential for male fertility. A zinc deficiency can contribute to a low sperm count and hormonal imbalances. For a pregnant woman, not getting enough zinc can lead to poor fetal development, increased risk of infection and premature labor and low birth weight.
The issue for vegans is that zinc absorption may be restricted when eating foods high in phytates, such as grains, nuts and potatoes. So you may need to aim for a higher intake of zinc than non-vegan expectant mothers.
Plant-based sources of zinc include oatmeal, fortified cereals, beans, nuts and seeds.
Most people instantly think of fish when it comes to getting omega-3s, but why not cut out the middleman and go straight to the source… algae, it’s where fish get their omega-3s from!
Omega-3s, DHA and EPA are vital for the proper development of your baby’s brain. An increased intake of omega-3s during pregnancy decreases your risk of premature labor, improves your baby’s birth weight and can lower your risk of preeclampsia.
After delivery, if you have low omega-3 levels it can increase the likelihood of postnatal depression. You’ll also need good levels of omega-3s while breastfeeding too.
Plant-based sources of omega-3s include:
- Seaweed, nori, spirulina and chlorella
- Chia seeds
- Hemp seeds
- Flax seeds
- Kidney beans
- Soybean oil
- Vegan omega-3 supplements
During pregnancy low intake of iodine has been linked to poor fetal brain development. An easy way to get iodine is to use iodized salt.
Other plant foods containing iodine include:
- Green beans
- Spring greens
- Organic potatoes with their skin left on
The levels of iodine in these foods can vary depending on the amount of iodine in the soil.
Another good source of iodine is from sea vegetables such as kombu, nori, arame and wakame. The amount of iodine in kombu can be very high so including seaweed into your diet no more than once a week would be sufficient in getting your iodine needs met.
Finding vegan sources of protein is easy. You’ve got things like beans, lentils, nuts and whole grains. It’s not that you can’t get enough protein from a vegan diet but that you need to ensure you’re getting enough while pregnant.
If you’re pregnant with a single baby your protein requirements are 71 grams per day. For twins you’ll need 100 grams.
Signs to watch for that indicate you might be low in protein are fatigue, poor concentration, mood swings, poor wound healing, among other symptoms – mind you, some of these are also general pregnancy symptoms too!
If you’re struggling to keep a handle on how you’re reaching your nutritional goals, it’s a great idea to download a vegan pregnancy nutrition app that will allow you to input what you’ve eaten during the day and calculate your results.
Should you take prenatal vitamins?
Whether vegan or not, most healthcare professionals encourage pregnant women to take a prenatal supplement. Even if your diet was great before getting pregnant, your body now has a whole new bunch of nutritional requirements to be met in order to grow a healthy baby and keep your body in full working order.
It’s also useful to note that if you’re experiencing morning sickness, taking a vegan prenatal vitamin supplement can help support your body at a time when you may not be able to eat like you need to.
You’ll want to choose prenatal vitamins that have been specifically formulated for vegan pregnancy, containing the right levels of B12 and other essentials that can be a little more tricky on a vegan diet.
Taking a prenatal vitamin doesn’t mean that you can let your diet go awry though! A prenatal supplement is simply a back up to ensure you’re not missing out on any essential nutrients that you should be getting from your food.
Once your pregnancy is over, you can continue taking your prenatal vitamin for a couple of weeks, but after that it’s a good idea to find a vegan postnatal vitamin supplement. A good postnatal supplement is designed to support your body’s healing and recovery and milk production if you’re breastfeeding.
Maintaining a healthy weight
Being overweight or underweight when pregnant can present problems both to your health and your baby’s.
If you’ve experienced terrible morning sickness in the first trimester of your pregnancy your weight may have dropped off, which is normal. If you were underweight to start with, speak with your supporting healthcare professional about how much weight you need to put back on once you’re feeling up to eating again.
Once the dreaded morning sickness is over, you’ll be amazed at how hungry you start to get, especially during the second trimester. Forget the saying “eating for two”. You’re eating for yourself and to grow a little person a fraction of your size. Yes, your body needs more calories but it needs quality calories and nutrients that will support your health and help your baby grow.
According to the US Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics you don’t need any extra calories in the first trimester, only 340 calories per day extra in the second trimester and 450 extra per day in the third trimester. (5)
The best way to get these additional calories in the second and third trimesters is via nutrient-dense fruit, veggies, grains and pulses. These food choices will keep you healthy and satisfied.
Foods to avoid
The great news for vegans is that most of the foods that are off the menu for pregnant women aren’t suitable for vegans anyway. These include food items such as cold cuts (cured lunch meats), aged cheeses, raw eggs, high-mercury fish, and more. (6)
While vegetarians avoid meat products, they still need to be careful to eliminate the non-pasteurized dairy products and eggs from their diets as these can harbor dangerous bacteria such as E Coli and salmonella.
Every pregnant mother should refrain entirely from alcohol (although if you drank a little in your first trimester before finding out you were pregnant your baby should still be okay). (7)
You’ll find conflicting recommendations and studies about whether or not it’s okay to have a small glass of wine while pregnant. My personal opinion is why risk it? It’s not going to kill you to opt for a sparkling water instead of a glass of rosé, but it may do irreversible harm to your baby to drink alcohol.
You can go teetotal for nine months and still enjoy yourself; there’s a range of non-alcoholic beers, wines and cocktails on the market these days that allow you to join in the fun.
In addition to cutting out alcohol and reducing your caffeine intake, vegan moms-to-be also need to avoid the following:
- Raw sprouts – The seeds can sometimes harbor bacteria which thrives in the humid environment sprouts require to grow.
- Unwashed produce – All sorts of bacteria can exist on the surface of unwashed produce including salmonella, E Coli and toxoplasma.
What about soy?
Soy really does get a bad rap as far as vegan foods go. If you’re a soy fan there’s no reason to avoid soy completely while pregnant but you should take extra care in choosing which soy products you consume. (8)
Ideally, you’ll choose organic, non-GMO soy products such as tofu, tempeh and soy milk. Fermented tofu products such as soy sauce and miso are also okay as part of a balanced diet, but try to opt for the low-salt varieties especially if you are experiencing swelling in your legs and ankles.
Many long standing vegans are blindsided when they experience non-vegan cravings during pregnancy. These cravings can often led vegan moms-to-be to question their vegan diet during pregnancy and wonder if their body is telling them they need to eat animal products.
Rest assured that pregnancy cravings are not linked to nutritional needs. Although medical professionals aren’t actually sure why pregnant women experience cravings, the recent consensus is that they’re probably more likely linked to an emotional attachment – so you can thank your raging pregnancy hormones for that! (9)
While it’s important to try and stick to a healthy diet while pregnant, if you’ve got an incessant craving for a double cheese hamburger that just won’t let up, many other vegan moms have found comfort in eating a vegan equivalent.
If you’re feeling guilty about craving animal products – or even if you cave and end up eating something non-vegan – just try and remind yourself of your reasons for being vegan; whether it’s for the animals, your health or a combination of both. In doing so, it helps to put things back in perspective.
Vegan pregnancy complications
Are you still worried that a vegan pregnancy might led to complications? Here’s what you need to be aware of…
Vegetarian and vegan diets haven’t been shown to increase any serious pregnancy complications or the risk of birth defects provided your levels of B12 are optimal and you don’t leave iron deficiency anemia unchecked.
If you’re deficient in B12 while pregnant it may increase the risk of your baby developing neural tube birth defects and could lead to cognitive impairments.
Anemia is common even for non-vegans during pregnancy but vegans need to be extra vigilant when it comes to their iron intake. Anemia could increase the risk of your baby coming preterm, affect their birth weight, or mean that they develop cognitive or developmental delays.
It’s also bad for you as it increases your risk of needing a blood transfusion after delivery and studies have shown that it makes it more likely that you’ll suffer from postpartum depression. (10)
While these risks sound frightening, remember that they’re “worst case scenario”. If you’re worried about your diet or you are experiencing trouble with B12 and iron absorption it’s important to speak to your medical professional and seek out the guidance of a nutritionist experienced with vegan pregnancy if that’s within your means.
How do vegans cope with morning sickness?
More than 50% of pregnant women will experience morning sickness and as one of the first signs of pregnancy, it can begin before you’ve even missed your period. (11)
Ask most pregnant woman experiencing morning sickness and they’ll probably confirm that it really should be renamed “all-day” sickness. For some it may present as food aversions, and for others even just the mention of food can see them reaching for a bucket.
While throwing up and barely being able to eat may feel awful, the good news is that it’s “normal” and it won’t harm your baby.
Unless you’re experiencing hyperemesis gravidarum, a very severe form of morning sickness that may require medication, you should be able to manage your morning sickness with a range of tried and true natural remedies that women have been using for hundreds of years. (12)
Most of these natural morning sickness remedies also happen to be vegan and there are also things that you can prepare at home such as morning sickness smoothies and ice pops.
Natural remedies include food items such as:
- Peppermint (can be used as aromatherapy too)
Other moms swear by sucking hard candies and/or using anti-nausea bracelets.
If your morning sickness isn’t helped by any of these suggestions, you could talk to your physician about taking a B6 supplement. It’s safe to take during pregnancy and several studies have demonstrated its effectiveness. (13)
Disappointingly, it’s usually the case that a remedy that worked for you the day before may not work for you at all the following day – that’s pregnancy for you! That’s why having an arsenal of natural remedies on hand is helpful so you can switch them up and find out what’s working for you on any particular day.
When you’re in the midst of the dreaded morning sickness it can feel like it’s never going to end. Just remember there’s light at the end of the tunnel! Most morning sickness symptoms ease off and disappear in the second trimester, sometimes they’re there one day and gone the next. You can do this!
Dealing with other people’s opinions on your vegan pregnancy
When you become pregnant, especially if it’s your first pregnancy or first vegan pregnancy, it can be easy to be swayed by “well-meaning” advice and guidance from friends, family members and health professionals.
Sadly, despite the wealth of scientific and medical literature available that points to the safety and benefits of a well-planned vegan diet during pregnancy, many people – including doctors, midwives and gynecologists – are unaware that it’s safe and possible and still believe vegan stereotypes and myths.
When it comes to discussions with your doctor or medical professional, it pays to come prepared with printed articles or other resources that are well referenced that you can give to them. The statement from the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics and the position of the PCRM are both credible sources.
Also discussing your awareness of the specific nutritional challenges during vegan pregnancy and what you plan to do to address them, should set your doctor’s mind at ease as it demonstrates you’re responsible, proactive and well-informed.
Dealing with friends and family members on the other hand can be a little tricky. Despite your raging pregnancy hormones, it’s important to try and not let their comments or insistence that you’re going to harm your baby get to you – easier said than done!
It’s okay to take time out from people that are giving you a hard time; pregnancy is hard enough without that extra worry! If that makes you feel a little too isolated, seek out vegan pregnancy and parenting groups online – you can guarantee there will be other people experiencing the same pushback from their friends and family too.
It can also pay to have your partner or a close friend accompany you on occasions where you’re going to see someone that’s highly vocal about your vegan pregnancy. This support person can help defend you when words fail you and just provide moral support so you don’t feel like you’re on your own.
Remember, despite all the invasive checks and other unpleasantries of pregnancy, your body is still your own and as long as you are caring for it to the best of your ability, what you do with it is your business, not anyone else’s.
A vegan pregnancy can be safe and healthy
As hundreds of thousands of other women around the world have and are demonstrating, a vegan pregnancy is not only possible but is also a healthful way to bring your little baby into the world.
This is provided that you are diligent in ensuring you’re getting everything you need nutritionally through the food that you’re eating and/or via supplementation.
With veganism moving into the mainstream the support and medical evidence for vegan parents-to-be is increasing and should make the ride as a pregnant vegan a little less bumpy!
We hope that you’ve found this guide useful. If you have any questions or would like us to update this article with any additional information, please leave a comment below.
About The Author:
Emma is a blogger, life-coach and qualified PR professional and journalist, who also happens to be a passionate vegan, animal and nature lover.
She lives in a small village in France with her husband, daughter and their rescue animals at the Barefoot Vegan Farm and Animal Sanctuary. As a writer, Emma’s work has been featured in other popular well-being and spiritual websites such as Elephant Journal, IVORY magazine, and she’s part of the Huffington Post’s team of regular bloggers. Her writing was also included in the Tiny Buddha book 365 Love Challenges from Tiny Buddha, released in 2015 by HarperCollins.
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