Okay. It’s time to set the record straight. Yes, you CAN have a super healthy vegan pregnancy.
And it actually doesn’t take a lot of extra work or attention if you’re already a healthy vegan. How can this be true? Because in all honesty, pregnancy nutrition isn’t rocket science…even if it’s vegan pregnancy nutrition. And the nutrition advice isn’t really that different if you’re vegan than if you’re an omnivore.
Now I’ll say something that seems contradictory: you really do have to take nutrition seriously in pregnancy…vegan or not. You don’t get to be a junk food junkie for nine months. Not only will you feel awful, but you’ll also not be giving babe the best head start in life.
Now that I’ve covered both ends of the argument spectrum, let’s really talk about what it means to have a healthy vegan pregnancy.
Foods to Avoid in Pregnancy
Most pregnancy nutrition guidelines focus on what NOT to eat, because foodborne illness can harm both baby and mama, as your immune system changes in pregnancy. However, aside from a few biggies, having a vegan pregnancy eliminates most of the don’ts. Like no raw fish. No raw deli meats. No soft cheeses. If you’re vegan, consider the don’t list almost done and dusted.
The don’ts you do need to pay attention to?
Ditching booze. Alcohol is a no no in pregnancy.
Limiting caffeine to 200mg a day, which is one small coffee. If you can, switch to tea or choose caffeine free teas. But take care as not all herbal teas are a good idea. This is a great article on tea. My fave in pregnancy is rooibos.
Avoiding raw sprouts. Food safety nightmare.
Being really careful with raw juices as juicing machines can breed microbes. I only drank made to order juices when pregnant from a place I really trusted.
Washing all produce very well before eating as these days, e.coli can happen even to spinach.
What to Eat When You’re Pregnant
I believe what is most important in pregnancy is exactly what you DO eat…the occasional gummy bear and veggie dog aside. It’s because you are literally building a baby. And you can build it with premium materials or lackluster ones from an epigenetic perspective.
However, as a mama myself, I’ve got to be super honest: all I wanted was sour candy and cheesy carbs in my first pregnancy and my son is super healthy, strong and smart. With my daughter, I craved salads and worked out five days a week and I gained almost the same amount of weight and yes, she is also super healthy, strong and smart.
(This is what you have to look forward to as a parent: the utmost belief that yours are the best kids ever built.)
Vitamins and Minerals in Vegan Pregnancy
In pregnancy, most of the changes to your nutrition needs in pregnancy are in the micronutrients…which is why a good pre-natal vitamin is critical. Ideally, I recommend that my clients begin taking a prenatal vitamin when they start trying for a family as folate is critical in those weeks before you even know you are pregnant. Prenatal vitamins typically include vitamin B12, which is the only wild card nutrient you’re not receiving on vegan diet. Vegans may have lower zinc and iron intakes but that is also taken care of in a really good prenatal.
Here is a snapshot of the vitamins and minerals that are you want to get from your prenatal. There are plenty of other essential nutrients you need in pregnancy…but they’re easier to come by. So, these are the ones I want you to check for on your prenatal label.
Needs increase in pregnancy to 27mg daily. I recommend you take a prenatal that gets you all of the way there.
Needs increase to 11mg daily. Critical for building DNA.
Needs increase to 600 micrograms daily. Important in the first weeks of pregnancy for building the spinal cord.
Can be low in vegan diets if you don’t use iodized salt, which I recommend you do. You need 220 micrograms daily in pregnancy.
You need 2.6 micrograms daily, prenatals almost always have more than this.
Since you’re taking your prenatal, you are mostly off the hook for micronutrients. What’s left? Omega 3s, vitamin D, calcium and protein.
The messaging on prenatals is so strong that many women don’t realize that it is also recommended that you consume 200mg of omega 3 DHA daily to support nervous system development in your babe. And, happily, it’s super easy to get from plants. I really like NutraVege Omega 3 Plant 2x. One teaspoon a day is all you need. I also recommend you eat more omega 3 rich foods like hemp seeds (so great for protein and minerals!), ground flax and chia seeds. Since inflammation naturally increases during pregnancy, omega 3 is good for you and babe. Also, speaking of inflammation, be sure to floss daily. It’s annoying. But super important to keep inflammation reduced. Just be gentle as gums may bleed more easily.
You’ll also need some vitamin D. How much? The recommendation is just 600IU so 1000IU tab is great. I took more than that but talk to your doc or midwife to see what they recommend for you.
Your calcium needs don’t actually increase in pregnancy, they’re still 1000mg per day. But you really don’t want to ignore it. Babies are good at scavenging the nutrients they need from mama. So if you don’t get enough calcium, they’re going to rob your bones.
The easiest way to get this is by drinking your mylk. You need a lot of extra fluid anyways, so enjoy three cups of mylk in your decaf latte, smoothie or evening cocoa. Any extra calcium from greens, tahini or tofu is bonus!
Getting enough protein in a vegan pregnancy
Let’s talk protein. It is generally recommended that pregnant women get 70-75g of protein daily. It’s not a ton…but it does take attention, whether or not you’re plant-based. What does 75 grams of protein look like on a vegan diet? Here’s a super basic example:
Breakfast: 1 cup cooked oatmeal with 3 tbsp hemp seeds, 1 cup fruit and 1 cup soymilk 23g
Lunch: Kale salad with 1 cup lentils 19g
Snack: ¼ cup almonds with sliced apple 8g
Dinner: ¼ 350g package of tofu served with stir-fried vegetables and 1 cup of wheat berries 23g
Dessert: hot cocoa made with 1 cup oatmilk 4g
Daily total: 77g
See how easy it is? But, it could be easy not to get enough too. Drinking low protein mylks. Not eating large enough portions of proteins or skipping a protein at a meal. This is also a decent amount of food if you have a smaller body size or aren’t feeling great.
For this reason – and because life happens – I recommend keeping a good non-soy protein powder on hand for crazy days where you know you need a boost. Blend some up with a cup of mylk and a bit of fruit for an easy and healthy snack!
PSA: you are NOT eating for two
Let’s talk calorie needs. Which is probably the only time you’ll see me talking calories. Because to be honest, in my first pregnancy, I was somehow paranoid I wouldn’t gain enough weight. Oh my goodness…was I wrong! I gained immediately and steadily. By 12 weeks, I couldn’t fit into my normal pants. My butt expanded before my belly did. And yes, it came off. And yes, it doesn’t matter. Just FYI.
In actual fact, calorie needs barely go up, particularly considering that most of us already consume more than we need in our hyper-processed food world. In the first trimester, you need zero extra calories (but WAY more nutrients!) which is why your supplements are critical.
In the second trimester, your needs go up about 340 calories a day and in the third, about 450 calories a day. Sounds like a lot, but it really isn’t. A large apple and 2 tablespoons of almond butter is about 340 calories.
So, long story short, I don’t want you counting calories when you’re pregnant but it’s not a free for all. Eat normally, let your appetite guide you and choose healthy foods most often…with a side of pickles and cashew ice cream when the mood strikes.
What is the actual research on vegan pregnancies?
However, there isn’t a ton of research out there specifically on vegan pregnancy. But what’s out there should satisfy the naysayers. One review found that healthy, plant-rich vegan diets may be associated with fewer complications in pregnancy and that the high phytochemical content of plant-rich diets may support optimal health in babes. Another review also suggests that based on the limited evidence, vegan diets are safe when micronutrients (prenatals!!!) are well attended to, although there is the potential for a small increase in risk of hypospadias, a rare condition in boys that results in some deformity to the penis. Really not something to worry about in my opinion but full disclosure is important.
What should you eat during a vegan pregnancy?
As you can see, my advice to you will be very similar whether you are having a vegan or omnivore pregnancy. I would like you to eat as many whole fruits and vegetables as you can tolerate. To really focus on adequate protein. To take your vitamin D, prenatals and omega 3s.
To not fear weight gain and eat normally, to appetite. To eat healthy as often as possible and not sweat the cookies and chips when they crop up. And, most importantly, to listen to your body. To honour aversions without fear. To eat what you crave in reasonable amounts. To rest when you need rest.
Oh, and did I mention, always take your prenatals??